ELL | Feature

24/7 ELL

Two districts' mobile ELL initiatives reach students' homes and engage their families in the learning process.

After Comal Independent School District, in New Braunfels, TX, and Township High School District 214's Newcomer Center in Arlington Heights, IL, implemented their respective iPod Touch and iPad ELL initiatives, every aspect of English language learning--reading, writing, listening, and speaking--was enriched just by having these devices in the classroom. Administrators and ELL instructors at both districts had expected these positive results at school, but what they didn't fully expect was the impact the mobile initiatives would have on the home.

Much of that impact, though, is a result of the foresight that both districts had to go one step further with their programs than the typical mobile device initiatives implemented in many schools. Rather than providing access to a shared cart of devices that could be "checked out" by teachers for use during a specific class period, the districts gave each of the ELL students involved in the initiatives their own device that they could carry with them 24/7. Their ELL students now had access to their dictionary and translator apps, internet browsers, and other tools whenever they needed them--in the cafeteria, on the bus, and, most importantly, at home. Because of this around-the-clock access, both the iPod Touch and the iPad have allowed the students to seamlessly connect their learning with their home environments--an especially important link for ELL students, whose families often don't speak English at home.

At District 214, parents were invited to attend an iPad training and information session before the students brought the devices home. "We followed up with the parents a few months later to see what impact this device was having at home," explains Norman Kane, Director of District 214's Newcomer Center, "and we found that even though we provided information on free WiFi hotspots in the community, quite a few families signed up for low-cost internet access so that their child could use the device at home. We also found that almost half of the parents were using the iPad themselves or with their child at home, which we were hoping would happen. This is a 24/7 initiative; we want the students to use this tool with their family." They also found that many of the students' younger siblings frequently used the iPad, and added apps and games aimed at younger users to help them build their English skills. Kane and his team plan to continue monitoring the iPad's impact on the students' families throughout the year. Explains Newcomer Center coordinator and social studies teacher Mario Perez, "The home-school connection is invaluable. We want the parents to use the iPad as much as the kids do when they're at home. Getting these iPads into the kids hands and having them share the tool with their family is getting us closer to closing the digital divide."

At Comal, Instructional Technology Specialist Jennifer Wivagg notes that for ELL students on free or reduced lunch, the iPod Touch has become the main device used by the student and their family to access the internet at home. "The families are using the device together," explains Wivagg. "That wasn't our intent with the program, but it's a great unexpected result." Parental engagement is key to a student's academic success, but it's often difficult to foster in non-English-speaking households. Remarks Sandra Shelton, Comal ISD's executive director of instructional technology, "These devices are not only improving the student's English--they're improving their parent's English as well. These parents are able to take a more active role in their child's education because this tool is right there at home with them."

The work of organizations like Computers for Youth has proven that creating a strong home-school connection and taking measures to increase parental involvement can have a major impact on a student's academic success, and, as the iPod Touch and iPad initiatives at Comal ISD and Township District 214's Newcomer Center show, mobile devices have the potential to break down the barrier between home and school that inherently exists when teaching most ELL students.

Don't miss "ELL to Go" in the May issue of T.H.E. Journal for an in-depth look at the innovative mobile ELL programs featured in this article.

About the Author

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.