In the United States, over thirteen million children speak a language other than English at home. After English, Spanish is the most common language spoken (Source: Data Center). In 2016, there were 456,000 Texas students who had difficulty speaking English. What are some of the ways that schools can use technology to assist students who are learning English? In this blog entry, let’s review research, approaches, and tools for teaching reading and writing to English language learners.
Microsoft’s Learning Tools and other digital text tools can enhance reading. Students’ experiences with digital texts include pictionaries, read alouds, and parts of speech. Each can help extend students’ vocabulary and support them in learning more about sentences structure.
One incredible Office 365 tool is the Immersive Reader. It offers various features such as:
- Adjustable font size, text spacing, and background color
- Splitting up words into syllables
- Line focus
- Highlighting verbs, nouns, adjectives, and sub-clauses
- Choosing between several fonts optimized to help with reading
- Reading text aloud with adjustable speed
- Optical Character Recognition (OCR) from print and pictures
These tools can help English Language Learners as they learn to break down words and phrases and improve their English literacy. Enhanced reading can also lead to enhanced writing, as my own story can attest.
Growing Up Bilingual
“How’s that book report coming along?” asked my dad. It was nearly noon on a Saturday. Balled up pages of handwritten text covered a corner of the hexagonal kitchen table. I smiled at him. “I’m on my fifth draft of a page-and-a-half book report.” The sheer exhilaration of putting words where I wanted to kept me wrestling with the ideas. Each time, I changed a sentence, I got an insight into the idea I was fishing for. I’d come a long way from my big fat “F” in reading and writing in second grade.
Research says a lot about children like me who grew up speaking and writing in two languages. Growing up bilingual? Some research says the following:
- You may learn English words and grammar at a slower pace than monolinguals,
- You tend to be better at multitasking than monolinguals.
- You can pick out relevant speech sounds and ignore others in noisy environments. (So, my mom was right. I did have selective hearing as a teenager!)
- Your verbal skills in each language are weaker than those of monolingual speakers.
Growing up bilingual, my dual language background enriched my writing style.
From book reports to essays and then more book reports, I learned to write in sixth grade. Constant writing allowed me to refine my use of two languages. Some of the techniques that I rely on as a bilingual writer are as follows:
- Create graphic organizers, semantic webs, and concept maps.
- Summarize research and explain what another has said or written in your own words.
- Chunk writing in blocks with headers.
- Start with dialogue or a story.
Want to help your English language learners and bilingual/ESL students improve their writing? You can use these same techniques with the help of tech tools.
Blending Technology into Writing
Ready to blend technology into the four techniques I mention above? Today, we have access to a wide range of tools and resources. Here is a roundup of tools:
1. Create graphic organizers
Have a touchscreen device like an iPad, Windows 10 tablet, or Chromebook with a stylus? Use convenient apps to organize your nonfiction or fiction writing. These apps do well for note-taking. Find them available for iOS, Windows 10, Chromebook. Many types of graphic organizers exist online. Use them as a model to organize your work and model it for students. I grew up drawing concept maps for lecture notes and grabbing key ideas from texts. Until I internalized the process, I used them to organize my writing.
2. Summarize research in your own words
Summarizing is the process of keeping what’s relevant and discarding the rest. For bilingual brains, this is one strength to develop. As a child, I was assigned research papers. I had limited access to encyclopedias. If I wanted access to information at home, I had to take notes on what I read. I kept what was relevant to what I hoped to write. One way to encourage students involves focusing on the main ideas and supporting details. Get them to write, revise the information, and focus on the relevant. One tool that I use often is Hemingway Editor. It helps cut unnecessary words and shorten ideas.
3. Chunk writing with headers
Chunking splits information into small pieces. This makes reading and understanding faster and easier. Students may see a piece of writing as one long narrative. Teach them to write longer pieces. Each piece is assembled in short chunks. Students can apply chunking strategies with these methods:
- Craft short paragraphs.
- Keep sentences short.
- Use bullet or numbered lists.
- Create a visual hierarchy with varying styles of headings and subheadings (Source)
One easy way to model this for students is to write blog entries. Your students can write about anything. Practice chunking it. Begin with short pieces first. Craft longer pieces in time. A fun way to approach this could be to have students chunk an existing piece of writing, explaining why as they do it.
4. Start with dialogue or story
“When do you use quotation marks?” asked my son. I had shared my Dad’s approach to selecting books to read. He was wont to say, “I crack the book open. If it has a lot of dialogue, I get it. If it doesn’t, I leave it on the shelf.” This made my son want to create writing worth buying. “You use quotes around things people say,” I said to him.
“Quotes move a piece of writing forward,” I added after a moment’s thought.
Want students to use dialogue well? Have them create comics. Every speech or thought bubble is a snippet of dialogue, spoken or imagined. Using tools like Book Creator, students can make comics. They can highlight nonfiction or fiction information and ideas. Each exchange forces students to break concepts into smaller pieces. They use their own words, striving for natural speech.
Reading and Writing to New Heights
Writers can be like rock climbers. The cliff climber pits herself against the physicality of the rock. A writer clings to ideas, dangling from a precipice. Embrace strategies and technologies for reading and writing with your bilingual students, especially as they work to perfect their English. Give them the skills they need to express themselves in English as well as they can in their mother tongue.
There are additional needs when learners are biscriptal – i.e. literate in a different writing system.