FEW TRENDS HAVE changed the demographics of US elementary and secondary schools as dramatically as the record-high immigration of the past dozen years. Students who are learning English for the first time, better known as English language learners, make up a greater proportion of the K-12 population than ever before. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs, between 1989-1990 and 2004-2005, enrollment of ELL students in US schools increased 150 percent, from roughly 2 million to well over 5 million.
Mix 5 million-plus ELL students with the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, which holds schools accountable for the academic performance of limited-English-speaking students, and you have a sure recipe for a boom in the market for tools and technologies that help teach English as a Second Language.
"We are seeing an explosion in this market," says Kristina Potter, senior director of ELL curriculum development at Pearson Digital Learning, a provider of preK-12 digital learning solutions. "But it's not so much that there's a bunch of new technologies out there for ESL. It's that more teachers are using computers and software in their ESL programs, and vendors are exploiting the capabilities of existing technologies in ELL-focused products."
Specialized ESL software is designed to help ELL students develop English-language listening, speaking, and reading skills. They range from simple, self-directed pronunciation programs delivered on CD, to complete multimedia software suites, such as Pearson's English Language Learning and Instruction System (ELLIS) product line, which can be deployed on desktop PCs, installed on district servers, or delivered via a web browser. The common thread among these programs is their emphasis on making text-heavy information more accessible through graphics, animation, and video. Virtually all of them offer some level of interactivity, and a growing number are web-based or network-connected. The best of them are providing more than pretty pictures. The buzz phrase here is context-based instruction, which puts students into lifelike situations using digital video.
"All of our instruction materials are video-based," says Potter, "so they situate the students in real-world environments and break that video base down into specific skill instructions." The software suites in Pearson's ELLIS line are good examples of ESL programs that exploit the multimedia capabilities of modern computer environments. Users are treated to high-quality graphics, digital sound, voice recording, video, animation, and interactive point-and-click screen controls.
The line is billed as "a complete, interactive, multimedia, customizable curriculum." It includes ELLIS Kids, for young learners at three English-proficiency levels (preliterate, beginner, and low intermediate); and ELLIS Academic, for students 12 and older. (ELLIS Business for working adults is also available.)
As Pearson puts it, "Learners experience a virtual world, using and speaking English." Depending on the level of play, the programs offer interactive role-playing, context-sensitive translation, grammar, vocabulary, cultural insight, pronunciation and comparison tools, mastery tests, and skills-tracking features.
For Rosetta Stone, one of the bigger players in the electronic language-instruction business, context is key. The company's programs serve as a medium for a teaching model known as Dynamic Immersion, in which the learner's native language--whatever it may be--is never used for explanation or translation.
"In effect, we create an environment and set of processes that mimic the way you learned your first language," explains Duane Sider, the Harrisonburg, VA-based company's director of learning. "The environment provides native speakers, real texts, and thousands of real-life images. We introduce you to words in the new language, not by defining them with words in another language, but with the objects and events themselves. …