Ed. Note: Thanks to the adoption of Common Core, the push for more tech-centered classrooms is now getting a boost. Many states are already using Common Core curriculum. Now many districts are preparing to begin the related computer-based assessments—and for that they are buying new devices and increasing their online connectivity. Pilar Carmina Gonzalez is a researcher for the Education Development Center. A leading expert on children and technology and a former ESL teacher, she says technology will open new avenues of learning for ELL students. She spoke with NAM’s Irene Florez.
What are some of the challenges facing ELL students when it comes to developing literacy?
A lot of ELLs struggle with literacy in general. They lack the vocabulary and the background knowledge. They might have the conversational English but maybe they can’t read academic English. So, if they can’t read informational texts, then they are missing out on learning.
Is there a best way to teach ELLs? Are teachers using these?
Many teachers are not trained to teach ELLs. There are strategies like providing visual and audio support to provide scaffolding. For example, pictures and text together can help them access the text. Aside from having an ESL teacher for an hour or two a day, many students might not be in a school equipped for them throughout the day.
How can technology help?
Technology has a lot of opportunities for teaching ELLs. For example sound and visuals can help ELLs access text and understand it better. If you are listening and reading at the same time, using multiple modalities, you can learn a language better. And hypertext can be helpful. They can click on a word that they don’t understand and see a definition, or a translation, an image or a video that illustrates the meaning to bridge the vocabulary hurdles. [Also], games and simulations can help. Instead of relying only on text, to explain a concept like photosynthesis they can learn about the concept in context.
What makes a software or program great? How can parents be sure their kids are using the best tools?
Unfortunately there is not enough research on the best bets. Most of the research is on how technology can help. Digital media can make it easier for teachers to access resources. For example they can look up something easily. They have information at their fingertips—information that has visuals, sound and music. They don't have to spend hours after work learning how to help their students. But, there are applications that are labeled educational that are often [just] drills of discrete skills instead of helping kids explore and create and use higher learning skills. Some good resources include the PBS Learning Media, the Library of Congress and the HERB American Social History Project.
Is there an ideal Internet speed for learning? Or type of device?
It depends on the context. Often, tech devices are treated as a magic bullet, but that’s not what’s important, it’s how they are used. Are teachers and students engaging deeply with technology? Reading an e-book versus a book will not have that much impact. But, using a computer creatively helps—students aren’t just passive consumers, they are creating content. That requires more training and is often one expense that isn’t budgeted. Also, many schools may have broadband in name, but it’s often too slow to stream video and the school itself may be wired for Internet, but not in every classroom.
Can increasing technology decrease achievement gaps?
Technology could be a huge help and I’m surprised that there isn’t more out there right now. It could provide more avenues into the content, so that students access text and have greater access to information.
What can you tell us about tablets?
What’s good is that they are cheaper than laptops so you can give them to more students and reach the 1-1 student-computer ratio. They are more cost effective. They are very portable—you can make videos with them. Also, they are tactile and more intuitive for young children. On the other end, they usually don’t have keyboards, they are less powerful and it’s harder to multitask. So if you have students do an involved multimedia project, then it’s hard. Then the tablets are more limiting.
Before we close, should parents be concerned about the growing collection of data on their children?
Data can be useful when doing individual assessments. If you are assessing a young child 1-1, for example, you might have the data on a tablet as you check things off while you work with the student. It can be efficient. The problem is that now there’s too much data and it loses its usefulness because teachers are overwhelmed. They don’t know what to do with all the data and it’s not presented in a good format for them. You might be wasting teaching time on assessments because you're not tailoring your curriculum with assessment data. In addition to too much time spent on assessments at the expense of teaching, there’s the issue of data security and privacy. Student IDs and birthdates may be put at risk.