Last summer I attended the ISTE conference (formerly called NECC) in Denver, Colorado. ISTE is sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education and is one of the largest educational technology conferences. While I was there, I tried to attend as many sessions possible related to technology and language acquisition, which is where I met Stephanie Krajicek, whose enthusiasm drew people like a magnet to her poster session. Her presentation focused on Technology Integration for English Language Learners (ELLs) and was a colorful and engaging amalgamation of ideas she has used in her classroom and with other teachers. Now a graduate student at Purdue, Stephanie continues to provide training to teachers on using technology matched to the needs they have for working with ELLs. I was able to catch up with her after the conference by phone and she provided some great practical tips.
Focus on the Learning
Stephanie’s poster was brimming with colorful screenshots of student work using many different technologies, especially social-networking applications—those that encourage students to communicate and collaborate with each other. She notes that the problem is not having access to interesting and engaging tools, but finding the right one.
“Many students,” she reports, “may or may not have had access to technology, so you have that extra level of language teaching.” An example she gave was that a common standard is to compare and contrast main characters in a story, which can be difficult concepts for ELLs to begin with, but adding technology means you may have to teach them what it means to log on, what a mouse is, when to right-click vs. left-click. She cautions that you have to be able to determine how much content knowledge they are going to get out of a technology that is complex.
With the teachers she works with now, she starts with a specific project, challenge, or need they have in their classrooms, and then she finds tools to help them meet those needs. She focuses on what they have access to—right now—and how it can be used to meet their needs. She’s done her homework, too, and has amassed a list of many different tools that can be applied in different situations for students at varied age and language levels. You can find some of the examples she’s identified, presentations, and helpful tips on her blog at http://eyeontransformation.blogspot.com/.
A Short List
So what are some of Stephanie’s favorite tools? Below are a few we talked about.
Storybird. Storybird is a collaborative site this is intended for families with younger children. One of the best aspects, according to Stephanie, is that the interface is really simple to use so you can get kids writing and creating short books literally by “clicking on the page and typing.”
The focus is on telling stories, but a benefit is that it allows ELLs to not only tell their stories but to share them. “Too often,” Stephanie admits, “teachers forget that final critical step of the writing process—publishing.” Storyboard allows them to publish their stories for each other, their teachers, and their families. Since the stories “go beyond the teacher’s desk” they carry greater weight, they have greater consequence. Students can also collaborate on stories and share them with each other during the writing process.
I visited the site and noticed that it is in “Public Beta,” which means that it’s free for now, but probably until they can figure out a reasonable business model. There is drag-and-drop art of many different styles students can incorporate into their work, and they can put text anywhere they want to with a click of a button. Storybird automatically creates covers, for those that might need that help, but they are also customizable. Your account tracks the storybirds you are working on, those you’ve published, and those you want to read, so you could actually create reading lists for students.
Webbing tools (concept maps). Stephanie notes that when teachers get caught up in teaching content they might overlook the need to help ELLs use higher-order thinking skills in the target language. Content requirements, especially in the higher grades, often include abstract terms, like compare and contrast, analyze, organize and others. Webbing tools provide visual supports for students to master skills like these using language and images that can visually be organized, linked, or highlighted. She likes to use them for prewriting, as well.
Many teachers have access to the popular Inspiration and Kidspiration software (Kidspiration is designed for younger students), but Stephanie has been using the web-based version of Inspiration’s concept-mapping software called Webspiration. Like Storybird, Webspiration is in free Public Beta but the plan is that it will eventually be offered as a subscription service, hopefully with a break for schools and following acceptable guidelines for secure use by younger students.
Webspiration is similar to its offline versions, and you can even upload or download files from Inspiration. But Webspiration adds the component of collaboration. You can collaborate synchronously or asynchronously, but Inspiration recommends you not collaborate with more than 25 people synchronously. In most settings, more than 3 or 4 might get confusing, anyway. There’s also chat functionality for additional real-time interaction. Collaborators do need an account, so you should follow acceptable use for setting up accounts for students.
Comic strip makers. There are several free and for-fee online and offline tools that allow students to make comic strips or cartoon-like presentations. The benefit for ELLs is that they are highly visual and give them an opportunity to practice English skills with simpler language. Plus, they’re fun and engaging. A short list follows (an Internet search will find many more):
- Chogger. Create comics with drawing tools or by uploading your own images.
- Comic Creator from readwritethink. Free online tool from the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English with templates for short black-and-white comics.
- Comic Strip Maker. Create one-page, three-panel dialog-based comics using one of six character templates.
- Make Beliefs Comix. Make three-panel comics you can print or e-mail using characters you can manipulate with simple click-driven commands.
Feed aggregators. Aggregators pull in information from different kinds of websites, such as news sites, blogs, and others. Google Reader is an example, but many e-mail programs also serve as aggregators. (You may find helpful the comparison of dozens of different aggregators found on Wikipedia.) The idea is that you can pull in information you are interested in from your favorite sites, or even set up searches for specific content that shows up in your mailbox—or reader—every day.
Stephanie notes that after time of constant English use, ELLs can bog down and tune out. It’s just tiring to process all that information in a new language. Feed aggregators allow you to provide access to background knowledge in their native language to keep the learning going. Some of the things she suggests you try are:
- Give students access to current events, those that parallel what you’re doing in your instruction, in their native language.
- Provide extension activities for students who need enrichment.
- Teach research and writing skills by having students bookmark and annotate websites, perhaps using a social-bookmarking tool like Diigo covered last month, and monitor their work. You can make sure they are finding relevant information, highlighting the most pertinent information, summarizing correctly, and making sure they’re not plagiarizing.
Walk the Walk
Stephanie had more great tips, both at ISTE and on the phone, so maybe we’ll hear from her again. When I asked her what higher education faculty could do to better help their teacher candidates learn about and use technology effectively, she emphasized modeling. She says that most of the technology experiences for many teacher candidates coming to her workshops is using Blackboard (or other learning management systems), but that’s not technology integration. That’s information management.
Since space is limited, Stephanie recommended—in a very 21st Century skills sort of way—that you might want to follow some higher education faculty that are modeling what they want teachers to do through social networking. One of her favorites is the English Companion Ning. She’d like to see something comparable for ELLs. A short list of sites she follows is below. Maybe we can all follow her lead and set up a feed aggregator to follow them. Thanks, Stephanie!