Magazine article Technology & Learning

An Expert's Guide to Products for the Multilingual Classroom

Magazine article Technology & Learning

An Expert's Guide to Products for the Multilingual Classroom

Article excerpt

The right software and Web resources can be essential for meeting the needs of English Language Learners. Here is a compendium of practical tips for choosing the best.

A significant increase in recent years in the number of nonnative English speakers enrolling in U.S. schools has created a new demand for educators qualified to teach English Language Learners (ELLs) in K-12 settings. While Florida, New York, and other states with large populations of ELLs are scrambling to put teacher training programs in place, immediate relief is still not in the offing for many students and teachers. Technology, in the form of software and the Internet, is becoming an increasingly important resource for dealing with this issue in today's multilingual classroom.

What Is a Multilingual Classroom?

The multilingual classroom can exist in a variety of iterations. It can be simply a regular classroom containing a few students who need to develop their English language skills and who learn subject-area concepts in their native languages until they're proficient in English. Or it can consist of entire classes of students who, as a group, may speak up to 30 or 40 languages. It can also include classrooms where the objective is to have students of any language back ground emerge flatly bilingual and biliterate--that is, with a knowledge of academic content area vocabulary in both languages, and the ability to communicate that knowledge to others. (For instance, a student should be able to explain a mathematical or scientific concept in either language.)

In any of these various versions of the multilingual classroom, appropriate, high-quality software or Web products can greatly benefit both students and teachers. Here, we take a look at criteria for choosing digital products that can be used either singly or in groups.

Tips for Choosing Good ESL Software and Web Products

Accuracy, correctness of content, and ESL approach. Some may be tempted to shortcut the language learning process by providing anything that seems appropriate to teach English, but ESL is a well-researched field and the stages of language acquisition are clearly delineated.

Not limited by regionalism or dialect. Most educational software tries to use American ("standard") English. But students may encounter a Southern, British, Australian, or other English language accent. If software is able to provide a variety of accents, especially at advanced levels, so much the better for language development.

Help in the native language. Research in the field of language learning has found that even at the most advanced levels of English language development, students benefit from assistance in their native language. This may help resolve issues of meaning or clarify instructions.

Open-ended activities available on- or offline. Practice in a language should never be limited to just interaction with a computer or software. Besides having good language teachers, students should be encouraged to participate in activities on the Web, such as peer-to-peer tutoring with students who already dominate the language, games, or exercises in content areas that help develop their "academic English" for math, science, social studies, music, and more.

True educational interactivity. Immediate feedback for self-correction and practice or rewards for accuracy are essential for language learning. Programs that record a user's verbal responses and compare them to a native speaker's, or that use voice recognition, are very useful. Beware, however: most voice recognition software is not up to the task of interpreting the speech of an ELL. Check if the software is too sensitive to variations in pronunciation that may frustrate a student at the beginner level. I've tested software that will ring up an unrecognized symbol even for native speakers. Better software allows some measure of adaptability so the teacher can select how easily the recognition engine will accept a heavily accented phrase or word. …

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