LIVE@CoSN2024: Exclusive Coverage

Software uses auditory methods to boost language acquisition

Computer programs are playing a larger role in helping students learn a new language.

Computer programs are playing a more active role in language acquisition, and many include features that let English as a Second Language (ESL) students and those learning a foreign language have conversations with their computers or hear a computer read aloud sentences that the students struggle to write.

For example, designed for ESL students, English in a Flash uses aural teaching cues to help build students’ mental word banks.

“It works the way kids learn a language naturally—they learn the pieces, and then over time they learn those pieces together,” said Sue Pulvermacher-Alt, reading product line director for English in a Flash. “They’re hearing the word as they’re seeing a visual representation of a word on a screen, and that’s repeated over time.”

The program spans grades 1-12, and it focuses on terms that will let users better grasp English for use in all subjects.

Pulvermacher-Alt said English in a Flash also covers what is known as cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), which moves beyond basic conversational fluency.

“It’s building a vocabulary that allows kids to be successful in conversational English, and—over time, as they’re working their way through the libraries—to build that academic vocabulary that they’ll need to succeed in math, social studies, science, and all of their coursework in school,” she said.

English in a Flash is sold by Renaissance Learning, which also markets a variety of other reading tools.

“Our goal is to get [ESL students] not just able to have a stronger vocabulary, but be able to apply that to real reading, real books, being successful as readers, because ultimately we want them to be reading in English and learning in English,” Pulvermacher-Alt said.

English in a Flash is correlated with Accelerated Reader, a K-12 reading software program also from Renaissance Learning. The two programs work together to identify school library books that students will be able to read successfully after working with English in a Flash.

Using the same aural concepts, Rosetta Stone has released language acquisition software for a number of different languages.

“When we first released the product in 1993, the first market we went to was education,” said Cathy Quenzer, Rosetta Stone’s senior director of educational sales. “We’ve been selling to education the whole time, but the brand became very well-known from our consumer division.”

Rosetta Stone’s teaching process pairs extensively-tested pictures with sound and text in the language being taught.

“Students learning English can come in, use Rosetta Stone, get up to speed very quickly, and it’s a very easy, positively reinforcing program,” Quenzer said. “With five different levels of English, it’s not just the basics, it’s really foundational language and operational language so [students] can understand more of what’s going on in the classroom and be able to understand their teacher and learn their curriculum much faster.”

While Rosetta Stone has been used extensively for ESL students, Quenzer said use of the software for learning foreign languages has increased as well.

“A couple years ago, I would say English by far outweighed everything else we were doing by a lot, but what we found is there is a lot more demand for world languages. … People who are bilingual have a lot of advantages,” Quenzer said. “Our workforce needs to be more bilingual so we can serve our customers overseas and here in the U.S.”

Quenzer said one of the most exciting parts of the program is a segment where students can have interactive conversations with the computer.

“To actually have that conversation where the program knows in essence what you know and what you don’t know already, you can [use] that speech recognition tool, [which] lets you know if you’re understandable—and it really puts you in a space where you’re much more prepared to converse,” she said.

Adding a language acquisition program into the curriculum can allow for other teacher-led activities.

“We’re freeing teachers up to not have to do the conversation drill, the rote memorization of vocabulary, because the computers are helping students to do that at [the students’] own pace. The teachers are freed up to do what they got into teaching for, which is bringing the language alive in the classroom and getting students very engaged and excited for classroom-based learning,” Quenzer said. “We’re really flipping the model.”

For translating the language acquisition process to writing, teachers and students can turn to WordQ+SpeakQ.

“[Students] don’t learn from WordQ, they learn with WordQ,” said Neil MacGregor, WordQ+SpeakQ’s vice president of learner development. “They learn with WordQ by having constant reinforcement both in what they’re seeing in their writing and how it sounds, so they’re getting a constant multimodal reinforcement.”

MacGregor, who suffers from dyslexia himself, said that students with learning disabilities often are taught in a “drill and kill” formula, where they are constantly told the information in one format, which doesn’t work. WordQ+SpeakQ lets students hear out loud what they are writing, allowing them to use the auditory skills they already have.

“[The user] can often hear spelling mistakes because they’re pronounced wrong; they can hear grammar errors because it sounds jumbled,” MacGregor said. “You may not see it, but listening to it, even someone who’s learning the language, they can hear that that’s not correct.”

WordQ+SpeakQ  is a program that runs in combination with word processing software. It allows students to hear what they are writing and gives them the ability to ask for help. For example, if a student types the first letter of a word and speaks what he or she is trying to write into the microphone, the program will provide words it thinks the student needs.

“It essentially combines the benefits of both speech recognition and word prediction to make what we call speech-enabled word prediction,” said MacGregor.

The software assists with punctuation as well, helping children learn where proper pauses are.

“Punctuation errors affect the rhythm of the sentence, and the rhythm of the sentence is maybe one of the more difficult things for teaching anyone either learning English or learning English as a second language. The rhythm of the English language often helps us understand the meaning, and that rhythm is better heard than seen,” MacGregor said. “Because they’re using their learning skills and [the program] isn’t applying some kind of auto grammar correct, they’re actually engaging what they know about the language with what’s represented on the page and how it all sounds.”

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

New Resource Center
Explore the latest information we’ve curated to help educators understand and embrace the ever-evolving science of reading.
Get Free Access Today!

"*" indicates required fields

Email Newsletters:

By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.