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One device can open many doors for English language learners, especially if they take their edtech home and teach their family members to use it

With the right instruction, tech opens doors for ELLs


One device can open many doors for English language learners, especially if they take their edtech home and teach their family members to use it

Even before COVID-19, reading scores among U.S. students had been declining for the first time in a decade, something that jeopardizes a generation’s achievement and mobility. As this trend was taking place nationally, more immigrant families were moving to Midwestern communities, including my home in Louisville, Kentucky.

While many cities across the country may find themselves unable to accommodate this influx of learners, here at Newcomer Academy, we have built a curriculum and infrastructure to support learners of all types and at scale. This means, at any time, we can welcome new families and students with the tools and resources they need to unlock learning.

Between 2013 and 2020, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) saw double-digit English-learner growth, including 25 percent growth in the 2019-2020 school year alone – a 20-year high. This year, the county has enrolled more than 14,000 English learners. It was this growing population that led JCPS in 2007 to create the Newcomer Academy, a school designed for English language learners in sixth through 12th grades.

At Newcomer, where I’m the principal, this is the first year that most students are enrolled in an American school, and many had limited or interrupted school experiences in their native countries. In fact, about one-third have an educational gap of at least three years.

At Newcomer, students spend up to three semesters building their language and academic skills with us before moving to a middle or high school with a continued English as a second language program. The administrative staff and most teachers are bilingual, if not multilingual. There are more than 150 languages spoken in our district. Jefferson County has a richness of culture that builds global citizens with diverse perspectives starting in middle school. In addition, the fact that many of our staff look and sound like the students helps them feel more comfortable while they’re learning a new language and absorbing a new culture. 

The needs at Newcomer are naturally different from the average student’s, and one of the most obvious is their relationship with technology. For many, their school-issued laptop or tablet is the first one they’ve ever used. But the technology often used to enhance instruction today shouldn’t pose a barrier for learning. Quite the contrary–it should enhance their experience. For that reason, it’s important that we select and introduce those tools with every student’s needs in mind. For instance, we know how powerful images can be in teaching multilingual learners. Images provide an instant visual translation allowing students to better understand content and context. Edtech allows us to find high-quality and culturally relevant images that can enhance engagement, comprehension, and relevance. 

The first step for students — and more often than not, their families — is helping them overcome their fear of technology. Consider it from their point of view: they’re in a new country, navigating new rules and new expectations, when they’re suddenly asked to not only learn to operate an unfamiliar and expensive device, but to safeguard it. Many of our families have come to the U.S. under dire circumstances, and the idea of having to pay to replace a lost or stolen Chromebook or iPad is enough to make them turn down a school-issued device on behalf of their child.

It’s vital that we help them overcome those fears. One device can open many doors for an English language learner, especially if they take it home and teach their siblings, parents and other family members to use it. That’s why our staff members devote significant time to helping families get more comfortable with the responsibility of protecting a school-issued device. Often, the most hesitant families end up becoming the most active users.

We also select edtech solutions with the specific needs of English language learners in mind–solutions that are adaptable, inclusive and equitable. Reading aloud can be one of the most important ways to build fluency, and this is especially critical for students reading at home with family members who aren’t fluent in English. Lumio by SMART includes an immersive reader function that makes it easier for learners to move between English and their native language. They highlight text, then tap open the Immersive Reader tool that enables the speech-to-text function — another tool that, when used at home, can help build language skills for family members. Students can also access a picture dictionary, which helps them make connections more easily. 

Finally, it’s important that we help our families leverage technology that will allow their students to thrive in their new educational environments. We offer a language line that connects them with a live interpreter at a moment’s notice. Another service, School-Connect, lets parents communicate directly with district leaders in their native languages, with messages that are automatically translated. Likewise, Google Translate will convert spoken English into 100 languages, which teachers can cut-and-paste into a document for students to read later. These tools can mean the difference between a family feeling lost and alienated and knowing that their child is in a safe, nurturing environment that values their experiences.

Today, the Newcomer Academy is making it easier to learn the language and the technologies that will open doors for all students in the future. They only need the right instruction, and the right tools, to turn their American dream into a reality.

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Laura Ascione

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