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April 30, 2019

Using Technology to Support English Learners in the Classroom

English Learners (ELs) come into our classrooms with a wide range of specific and unique needs for language development and content acquisition. They are children whose primary language is not English and who are learning English as a second language. English learners account for more than 9 percent of enrollment in grades K-12 in U.S. schools.¹ The integration of technology allows for great possibilities in meeting the needs of this diverse group of students while providing options for personalizing the user experience.

There are many apps and edtech tools available today, but very few are made specifically for EL students.  Yet, technology integration can provide valuable multimodal resources for instruction, learning, and engagement. As educators, our goal is to provide meaningful access to the core curriculum ensuring that ELs acquire the skills to succeed in the general education classroom along with their peers.  So how can we maximize the supports technology can provide for English Learners? We will look at three strategies that can provide new opportunities for ELs to engage with academic content.

  • Visual Representation: Typically, classroom materials are dominated by text. Print materials present information in a fixed and permanent way. Digital materials can provide visual supports to assist students in understanding and/or in communicating an idea.  Visual content decreases the amount of text used, lessening the reading and the language proficiency required to explain a  desired concept. Images, graphics, and/or videos can give students the opportunity to interact with curriculum that, by nature, has built-in supports. Digital content supports visual definitions through pictures or text  to see the meaning of words explained. Navigating digital content can be a sensory overload for some students. The ability to maintain attention to the content and not get “lost” with ads can be a significant issue. Tools such as Mercury Reader (Chrome Extension) or Safari Reader create opportunities to change the visual display of a web page by stripping away the ads, allowing the student to focus on the desired content. Online digital sites such as Newsela and TweenTribune provide texts at various lexile levels that can be/or are supported with audio and the ability to translate into other languages.  
  • Audio Supports provide for the use of sound to assist in understanding.  Audio allows students to revisit a lesson by listening to directions, hearing definitions, or listening to words be read aloud. Text-to-speech allows students to hear words, or whole documents read aloud - often with the highlighting of text to assist students in making the connection between the spoken word and the text.  Apps and web based tools such as Flipgrid and Book Creator enable students to record their voice, practice pronunciations, practice a presentation, or express ideas that they are not yet comfortable sharing in the classroom. Audio recording allows students the opportunity to think through a response and come up with ideas prior to recording.  Recording can be done easily and as many times as needed until the student is satisfied with the outcome, making thinking visible.
  • Translation: From basic translation to productivity tools, a lot of everyday apps and websites can be great for supporting EL-centered learning activities.  Many online platforms such as G-Suite for EDU and Microsoft Learning Tools have embedded functions for translation from one language to another. Translation of documents can provide a student the opportunity to view a written translation in his/her home language of an unfamiliar English word, sentence, or paragraph.  Spoken text translations allows the student to hear spoken text in one language as spoken in another language. Students can use the translation to define words in text while peer to peer collaboration and communication can happen both synchronously and asynchronously. Translation tools such as Google Translate allow for two-way communication that could not happen without it.  The translation feature assists teachers in augmenting or maintaining a strong home to school connection. Newsletters, announcements, and other communications can be translated into the language of the home.

Many digital tools have built-in features to support differentiated instruction for English Learners.  As educators, it is important to look for embedded support features in tools we use frequently and determine  which of these embedded supports will assist English Learners. Like all new skills, technology and device access can be new tools for your students. Through the use of technology, teachers can consider options that provide students with voice and choice as well as the necessary supports that can be used to support learner variability within the classroom.


  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24677.

Join us this summer!

Want to learn more about how technology can play a role in supporting English Learners in the classroom?  Join Rosey McQuillan this summer in Boston! During the Using Technology to Support English Learners workshop, teachers will build a toolkit of resources they can instantly use in their classroom.  Working together, teachers will engage in the hands-on exploration of technologies and resources that enable their EL students to access curriculum, feel successful, and empower them to become lifelong learners.   Learn more at edtechteacher.org/summer.