Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Using Technology with Newcomers: Newcomer ELLs and Computer Time

Ok y'all. I'm about to get serious over here for a minute, and I'm going to say some things you might not want to hear. But, as an ELL Specialist, this is something that is incredibly important to me. Throughout my career, I've been lucky to get to work with newcomer English learners from all over the world. I've learned as much from them as they have from me.

Every time a classroom teacher gets a newcomer ELL, I can see that look of fear in their eyes as they wonder how they are going to communicate with this child, much less teach this child. Many teachers mean well but do not know what else to do with the child, and they end up putting the child on the computer. So, while the rest of the class is participating in activities that allow them to interact with peers, increase their language use, and gain valuable content knowledge and skills, the newcomer ELL is working in isolation on the computer.

Even worse, many teachers will put Newcomer ELLs of any grade level on programs like ABCya, Starfall or other programs that are designed for PreK and Kindergarten students.

Why is this bad practice? 
Firstly, most of the website students get put on do little to nothing to support the second language acquisition process. Many lower-level phonics and reading programs/websites are designed for native speakers learning to use their first language, not for learners who are acquiring English as a second (or third! or fourth!) language.

Secondly, putting an older child on programs designed for PreK and Kindergarten students is simply not age-appropriate- they will quickly become bored because it is so far below their developmental level. Students end up wondering why they're working on "baby" work while other students are doing real learning. It can be discouraging for students. How would you feel if you walked into a Swedish 101 class and they put you on an app for Kindergarten children?

Thirdly, these students need to be included in the classroom community and need to interact with their peers- that is how they will begin acquiring English. That's not going to happen if the student is isolated for most of the day working on the computer.

Here are some major differences between acquiring your first (native) language, and acquiring a second (or additional) language that need to be taken into consideration when choosing appropriate learning tools- including technology tools:

  • In second language acquisition, knowledge of the first language also serves as a basis for learning the second language. 
  • In first language acquisition, children spend several years listening to language, babbling, and using telegraphic speech before they can form sentences. Second language learners do not have this opportunity, and need opportunities to use the language with peers.
  • Older learners are able to use more metacognitive processes in their learning.  They can consciously analyze and manipulate grammatical structures, sound patterns. They can also analyze how language works. Older ELLs need opportunities to analyze and manipulate language and grammar.
  • Older learners bring more life experience and background knowledge to their learning.  They have more schemata and more learning strategies to help them learn the second language. Learning activities should tap into this background knowledge and schema. 
  • In older learners, there may be less sensitivity to phonological distinctions not present in the native language.  Older ELLs may also have fewer opportunities to learn and use language authentically. These factors may reduce the likelihood that second language learners will attain native-like proficiency.  
  • In first language acquisition, learners have many chances to practice with native speakers (especially caregivers).  In second language acquisition, teachers must provide learners with the opportunity to practice extensively with native speakers.
  • Almost everyone acquires a first language, but not everyone acquires a second language. Acquiring a first language happens naturally, while acquiring a second language often requires conscious effort on the part of the learner. 
Choose wisely!
Technology can be an excellent tool to support language growth- when used correctly. It offers students opportunities to learn in new ways that weren't possible before. Based on the information above, it is important to choose resources that support the process of second language acquisition. For technology, this means that it should:
  • Be engaging and age appropriate
  • Provide ELLs with opportunities to actively use the language
  • Tap into background knowledge and existing schemata
  • Allow ELLs to use knowledge of their native language during learning
  • Cover material that is developmentally appropriate
Here are some great websites I've found that you can use with Newcomer ELLs in grades 3+:

Limit Computer Time
Newcomers are going to learn far more English (and likely some content too!) if they are permitted to interact with their peers and participate in whole and small group learning activities. They will not learn English or content if all their time is spent on the computer. Furthermore, isolating these learners on the computer makes them feel even more out of place than they already do, at a time when we should be making them feel like a welcome and important part of the classroom community. For this reason, I recommend limiting ELLs to 30 minutes a day of solo computer time. Additional time can be permitted for using technology in whole or small group situations.

Wondering how to include Newcomers in learning with the rest of the Class? 
The answer is simple- scaffold the activities so they can acquire new language and new content together. Provide age- and grade-level appropriate activities and tasks, and find ways for them to demonstrate their knowledge with little or no language. You can learn more strategies for working with newcomers in my Newcomer series

Please teachers, I beg you- whatever you do, do not put Newcomer ELLs on PK or K programs/websites unless they are primary age learners, and please do not leave your newcomers on the computer all day. 


  1. Hi Laura, Thank you for this wonderful blog! Today, I received a newcomer who only speaks Spanish. I was given a computer for him from the school district so this blog opened my eyes to what NOT to do on the computer for him. Luckily in my class, there is a handful of bilingual students so the interaction part is there. I have created a binder of resources to help him with school specific vocabulary and sentence starters. Hopefully with the binder and the picture cards, he will be able to catch on quickly. I look forward to looking up the resources you provided for the computer since my student is a third grader.

  2. Thank you for these helpful tips for supporting newcomers in the classroom. I have a newcomer who knows no english. The school district gave me a computer to support his needs so I am excited to utilize the online resources that you provided. I agree that peer interaction is so important in developing the language. Luckily, I have many spanish speaking students so they are able to help. I also provided the student with a binder that has common academic vocabulary and other useful tools that are translated for both spanish and english.