ELL | Feature

ELL to Go

Two schools transform their ELL programs by giving students around-the-clock access to some of the latest mobile devices.

The typical student at the Newcomer Center, an alternative school in Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, IL, is a recent immigrant with little or no English skills. The school is a temporary stopover for these students--they stay at the center for about a year, building up their English-language skills, and are then transferred to an ESL program at their home school in the district.

The students at the center emigrated from countries around the world, and up until about a year ago, if you walked into the school's cafeteria during lunch, you'd see them separated into cliques or pairs based on their native tongue, chatting in the language they're most comfortable with rather than practicing the language they're trying to learn. But if you walked into that cafeteria anytime after September 2010, when the school launched its iPad initiative, you'd see a much different scene: students from around the world connecting with their fellow English language learners in their new, shared language. Each armed with an iPad, they swipe their fingers across the screen, consulting their translation and dictionary apps to access forgotten key words and clarify difficult ideas--conversational moments that in the past would have left them frustrated enough to remain segregated outside of the classroom.

Meanwhile, in a middle school ELL classroom at Comal Independent School District in New Braunfels, TX, a teacher asks her students to bring their iPod Touch devices home and use their voice memo apps to record themselves reading aloud in English. The next day, after she syncs the devices to her iTunes library, she listens to a recording made by a student who has refused to speak English since joining her class two years prior. In the classroom he would only communicate in Spanish, but in the privacy of his own home, knowing that only the teacher would hear the recording, he had a breakthrough; his teacher was able to hear him speak English for the first time.

District 214 and Comal ISD are pioneers in the incorporation of mobile devices such as the iPad and iPod Touch in the ELL classroom. Though it's too soon to collect significant quantitative data regarding the effect these devices have on English language learners, the experiences of the students and teachers using iPads and iPod Touches at these districts demonstrate the devices' potential to enrich, enhance, and extend ELL instruction beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom environment.

Why Go Mobile?
When administrators and ELL educators at Comal ISD were hunting for a device that would help bridge the gap in test scores between general-ed and ELL students, they brainstormed a list of tasks that they'd like the ELL students to be able to do with the tool. The list included support for textbooks in audio format, access to English language movies and videos, and internet access both at school and off campus (whether at home or a local WiFi hotspot).

"Also, from a teacher's perspective, it was extremely important that the tool allow students to record their voice so that their fluency could be monitored," explains Jennifer Wivagg, Comal ISD's instructional media specialist. "We needed a device that would allow them to make recordings at home. We also needed the tool to include translators, dictionaries, and other language-based tools that are important for an ESL student, and to be small enough for the students to carry in their pocket, so they have constant access to these important resources."

The only device that matched all of the educators' requirements was the iPod Touch. So in September 2009, after providing extensive professional development for its middle school ELL instructors, the district issued the devices to the estimated 130 ELL students that attend its five middle schools.

"We were one of the first districts in the state that implemented an iPod Touch ELL initiative to the level and fidelity that we have," remarks Sandra Shelton, executive director of technology at Comal ISD. "There are several people out there who do use these devices in ELL classrooms, but by far we've taken this idea and moved it forward by giving our ELL students ownership of these devices for the year, rather than requiring them to turn them in at the end of the day or the end of the class period. We felt that being able to bring the devices home was a key component of the initiative. It's not just about learning in school, especially with ELL students. It's about that time when they're on the bus, participating in after-school activities, or at home, when they could be continuing their development of these new language skills."

Educators planning the ELL initiative at District 214 shared Comal's belief that anytime access to a learning tool would be key to a successful program. "We wanted the students to have 24/7 access to this device, and we wanted it to be used in all of their classes as a whole-school initiative," explains Norman Kane, director of the district's Newcomer Center. When it came to choosing the right tool for the task, educators at the school wanted a device that provided the mobility, flexibility, and connectivity of the iPod Touch, but offered the screen size of a netbook--which led them to choose the iPad. In addition, Kane says, "We wanted a tool that could be easily implemented and had a small learning curve. The iPad, with its instant boot-up, long battery life, and app-based touchscreen interface, fit the bill."

The Newcomer Center began its iPad initiative with professional development over the summer of 2010, and issued the devices to its 30 students in September. Students use the iPads at home and at school, where they work with the devices throughout the day in every subject area--including phys ed, where students track their progress in the weight room with the free 1000 Exercises app developed by Men's Health and Women's Health, and monitor their nutrition using the free Nutrition Genius app.

Instant Interactivity
Wivagg recently held a focus group with the Comal ISD ELL students to find out which apps they used most often on their iPod Touches. The most popular app? The dictionary. "I was surprised," remarks Wivagg, "but when you think about it, it makes sense. They don't want to carry around an actual dictionary. Now, when they come across a word they don't know, they can just look it up on their iPod."

Wivagg asked the students what they did before they had the iPod Touch if they didn't know a word. The students explained that they'd ask a teacher to define the word, if a teacher was available, or they'd just "do nothing."

"That struck me," recalls Wivagg. "They'd just do nothing. They'd ignore that word and not learn what it meant. Now, with the iPod Touch, they are so comfortable just pulling out the device and looking up words using either their dictionary or translator app. They've got this powerful learning tool with them at all times, and they're not embarrassed about using it. It has really helped them." The Dictionary.com app on the Comal students' devices not only provides the definition of a word, but it also speaks the word aloud, effectively tying together the reading and listening modalities of ELL instruction.

Similarly, the Kindle e-Reader app on the Newcomer Center students' iPads has stood out as an essential tool for improving the students' reading skills. The app allows users to click on an unfamiliar word in the text of an e-book for an instant definition. If the student wants more information on the word, the app has options to search for the word in Google or Wikipedia. If there is still confusion, the student can translate the Google or Wikipedia text into their native language. In addition, says Mario Perez, Newcomer Center coordinator and social science and reading teacher, "It allows them to make notes as we're reading and store those notes within the section of the e-book to which those notes pertain. The interaction that the students have with e-books through the Kindle app is amazing."

This instant interactivity has inspired students to become more self-guided in their learning and has allowed teachers to present more challenging reading material. Shelley Kolasa, a reading and writing teacher at the Newcomer Center, often pre-teaches important vocabulary that students will come across in a story they are assigned--but she can't anticipate every word that a student might have trouble with. In addition, it's often difficult to find age-appropriate reading material at the students' reading levels, especially for high-school-age students at the Newcomer Center. E-books on the iPad Kindle app have helped her differentiate and individualize the instruction. "Students can decide which words they need more help with and find the definition instantly," she reports. "It has also made a difference in the material that I can present to them--I've been able to present much higher-level material because of the Kindle app and the visual support available on the iPad."

Visual support is especially important for ELL students, and in Kane's opinion, the iPad helps facilitate it much more than any other medium or device could. Explains Kane, "If we're doing a lesson about volcanoes, we need to be able to provide a visual representation of a volcano. With the diverse backgrounds of these students, they may know what a volcano is in their native language but not know the English terminology, or they may have never studied volcanoes before at all." Previously, visual support was available through the computer lab or a teacher presentation. "Now," remarks Kane, "they have instant access to visual support, 24/7."

Speaking and Listening
At Comal, the impact of students using the iPod Touch at home was apparent almost immediately, according to Jose Salazar, ESL programs coordinator at the district. "In a shorter period of time," he says, "our ELL students are more willing to speak freely in their second language than they were before." Part of that success can be attributed to the iPod Touch Voice Memo app, which enables students to create voice memo files on their devices that they can access to assess their own fluency, thus building confidence when speaking English among peers and in the classroom. When the iPods are synched with the teacher's master iTunes library, the voice recordings are uploaded to the computer, creating a library of the students' progress throughout the year.

Before the iPad, Kolasa struggled to make sure that her students at the Newcomer Center got enough practice with the speaking component of her reading and writing curriculum. Unlike the iPod Touch, the iPad does not come with a native voice memo app. Instead, her students use the SmartNote productivity app, which features a recording option. "I can assign a passage for them to read aloud to practice for fluency," explains Kolasa, "or I can have the students create dialogues between one another in class. They can record the assignments in the SmartNote app, e-mail that recording to me, and then I can give instant feedback on their speaking skills." Like the voice memo files on the iPod Touch, the app saves the students' recordings, creating an electronic portfolio of their progress.

Comal ELL students regularly use their iPod Touches' native iPod app to listen to audio versions of their reading assignments. In fact, the first thing Wivagg did at the start of the iPod Touch initiative was create an iTunes library from the CDs provided by the district's textbook publishers, and copy the library to each ELL teacher's computer, to be synched with the students' devices. "Then," adds Salazar, "we supplemented the teachers' iTunes libraries with the audiobook versions of the novels that are assigned in each grade level, so our more advanced ELL students could access those materials."

ELL teachers at Comal also download to the devices English-language songs that the students have requested, often as a reward at the end of the marking period. "These are songs by popular artists, like Justin Bieber," explains Wivagg, "and the teachers will incorporate the songs into an English-language lesson--it's very successful. At home the kids are only listening to music in their native language. That's all they're exposed to. We feel that providing access to English-language music on these devices is one more way to immerse the students in the English language."

Writing and Creating
At the Newcomer Center, ELL teachers looking to develop their students' writing skills are taking advantage of the iPad's larger virtual keyboard and screen size by having the students create presentations using the device's Keynote app and write papers using the Pages app. Recently, a reading specialist at the center had the students write autobiographies, which the students then converted to .epub files and uploaded to the school's iBooks library. "It's really cool for the students," remarks Perez, "because their peers can read their autobiography, which is sitting right on the iBooks shelf next to classics like The Outsiders or The Raven."

Such exercises give the students a jolt of enthusiasm for their written work. "Especially with writing," remarks Kolasa, "if they know that their work is going to be published and that other students are going to read their work, I've noticed a change in attitude. They take it more seriously. They put more thought into what they're writing. The motivation has definitely increased."

The iPad also allows students to express themselves and their understanding of the curriculum beyond the written word. At the completion of his Holocaust unit, Perez had his students download Holocaust stock images and use the PhotoPad app to add text to, draw on, and manipulate the images. The students then imported the enhanced images into their StoryKit app, which allows users to create a multimedia storybook. The students recorded audio of themselves speaking about the ideas and events depicted in their photos.

"I've always used this type of creative project to assess their understanding of this unit," explains Perez. But in the past his students created one-minute films about tolerance in iMovie in the computer lab. "Now, with the iPad, I'm really hitting all of the language learning domains, and the reading, listening, speaking, and writing is all done on one device."

App-titude for ELL
Choosing the right applications is key to creating a successful mobile ELL initiative. Here are some of the apps that the ELL students at the Newcomer Center in Arlington Heights, IL, and Comal Independent School District in New Braunfels, TX, wouldn't want to do without. (Most of the apps work on either the iPod Touch or iPad, and can be downloaded from the Apple iTunes store.)

Dictionary.com Dictionary and Thesaurus allows users to look up words without an internet connection, plus take advantage of audio pronunciation and voice-to-text searching capabilities. (Free from Dictionary.com)

ITranslate translates words, phrases, and even whole sentences into more than 50 languages. It also features voice recognition and conversation modes. (Free from Sonico GmbH)

Keynote can be used for creating complex presentations and slideshows with simple taps and drags of the finger. ($9.99 from Apple)

Kindle e-Reader allows users to read and interact with more than 810,000 books available in the Kindle store on a platform optimized for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. (Free from Amazon Mobile)

Nutrition Genius helps users keep track of calories consumed, exercise, and weight. (Free from Ticklish Turtle)

1000 Exercises, created by experts at Men's Health and Women's Health magazines, allows users to build, log, and share workouts, as well as access video demonstrations of exercises. ($5.99 from Rodale)

Pages is a powerful word processor that can be used for creating letters, fliers, brochures, reports, and more. ($9.99 from Apple)

PhotoPad offers many premium photo editing tools, including image rotation and resizing, cropping, red-eye removal, color and saturation adjustment, paint bucket, and more. (Free from Zagg)

SmartNote allows iPad users do anything they might do in a regular notebook in a password-protected app, including taking notes, sketching ideas, and highlighting text. (Free or $2.99 for ad-free version from Christopher Thibault and Brendan Lee)

StoryKit is an app that allows students and teachers to easily create digital, multimedia storybooks with this app. (Free from the International Children's Digital Library Foundation)

Voice Memo lets a user record audio using the device's built-in microphone or an external mic. (Native to iPod Touch and iPhone from Apple)

About the Author

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.