Teachers in English Language Learning classrooms have long faced the challenge of working with children who have diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds and wide-ranging linguistic skill sets. A child from El Salvador, for example, will need to practice different pronunciation and stress patterns than a child from Vietnam. Technology can help teachers effectively ensure that all of their students' varied needs are met.
In this review we focus on new offerings for language acquisition in beginning and lower-intermediate programs. Software-based ELLIS Academic Suite 3.0, English for Kids, and First English are all appropriate in content and design for middle and high school students, while browser-based CompassLearning Odyssey ELL Elementary is best suited to a younger, primary-grade audience. Among these four offerings are considerable differences in skill management, core emphasis, and complementing animation.
CompassLearning Odyssey ELL Elementary
This online program provides stimulating, lively multimedia lessons in functional and social English for K-6 students. Composed of lessons for both beginning and lower-intermediate students, Odyssey ELL Elementary relies on repetition and patterned learning to build a strong foundation for more advanced language structure and use.
In Winnie's World, a collection of beginning level scenes, several characters, and animated graphics—talking animals, a rumbling washing machine, and a poster—serve as portals to vocabulary, writing, listening, and recording games and exercises. Tasks are recursive and allow students to partake in exploratory clicking in order to find the embedded activities.
In The Dressmaker's Shop, users of Odyssey ELL Elementary develop sentences using the words for simple pieces of clothing.
While learners don't necessarily follow a set sequence of tasks, the activities work together to teach related material. For example, in The Dressmaker's Shop, students acquire the words for simple pieces of clothing and learn to categorize them, recognize them in context, and develop sentences with them.
In one exercise, the tailor holds up items of clothing and says, "This is a ____." Children must scroll over the spools of thread at the bottom of the screen to hear answer choices and click on the spool that corresponds to the correct word. Another activity in the same scene teaches the colors as they relate to clothing. In other areas, similar activities stress reading and listening comprehension by challenging learners to follow more complex instructions.
This program is certainly appropriate for early-level English learners up to the fifth and sixth grades, though some middle school teachers may find the activities in the publisher's Secondary/Adult offering a better fit. Also, primary-grade educators planning to rely heavily on Odyssey ELL Elementary for their classroom curriculum should be aware that they'll need to supplement it with materials for conversation and pronunciation practice—two areas in which the program is lacking.
ELLIS Academic 3.0
ELLIS Academic is an interactive, video-based, four-product program thorough enough to serve as the core curriculum in any ELL classroom. For the purposes of this review, we've chosen to focus on ELLIS Basics and ELLIS Intro, the two most comparable to the others here.
ELLIS Basics is designed to teach the building blocks of English literacy. In the nine vocabulary lessons and nine reading lessons, students are introduced to concepts like the alphabet, sound/symbol connections, and word recognition in written and spoken sentences. Lessons are challenging and rely on such everyday communication topics as expressing likes and dislikes or describing family. The user interface is intuitive, with clear pictures and graphics accompanying the games and quizzes in each lesson.
ELLIS Intro is made up of eight units, each with lessons in listening, vocabulary, grammar, phonics-based pronunciation, and communication. For every unit, students watch a video and participate in games, exercises, and quizzes covering a practical topic, like finding a job or going to the doctor. Users have control over the number of times they replay a scene, repeat an activity, and record and compare their voices to those in the video.
The real-world scenarios portrayed in the clips are excellent in-context learning aides for subtle language concepts like sarcasm. In one scene, for example, a man standing on a street corner is approached several times by individuals asking for directions. After this scenario repeats three times, the man asks, "What do I look like, a map?" And video of real people interacting provides an ideal way for learners to gain exposure to the cadence and rhythm of spoken English-something computer-generated characters don't always do.
English for Kids
(ESL Pro Systems)
English for Kids allows students to navigate through a series of screens introducing key consonant and vowel sounds used in the English language. In each of the 31 lessons, they learn a new sound and are given the options to hear it pronounced by a native speaker; record themselves speaking the sound and compare it to the native speaker; and watch the animated Visual Pronunciation Assistant. The VPA shows front and cross-section views of the mouth, so students can model the placement and movement of lips, teeth, tongue, and air flow.
For each new sound, learners are asked to identify and click on its phonetic symbol on a virtual keyboard before they can move on to the next lesson; a "hint" button provides help when needed. Unfortunately, English for Kids assumes that students are familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, which many may not be. For those who are, the program is intuitive and appropriate for self-directed study.
While the program's main focus is on pronunciation, spelling patterns and light vocabulary acquisition come into the picture as well. The lessons build on one another, introducing full words after several consonant and vowel sounds have been practiced. Lesson 1, for example, teaches the /P/, /T/, and /K/ sounds; Lesson 2 the long and short /u/ and the short /i/. In Lesson 3, all of the sounds are strung together to teach words: pick, tick, and so forth. For each word, a definition and a sentence appear in a text box. Graphics are a weak point, with some words accompanied by animated visual aides, some by poor-quality photos, and some by nothing at all.
English for Kids is best as an accompaniment to the other types of offerings we've reviewed here, especially if used in a language lab setting. But as a stand-alone product, it lacks practical, real-world application and the attention-holding games and quizzes other products have.
(DynEd International, Inc.)
This comprehensive, well-designed, easy-to-navigate program will bolster any existing classroom curriculum and even tempt some teachers to replace their existing syllabus with First English. All eight units in the Basic Level comprise five structured usage lessons—Listening, Dialog, Vocabulary, Grammar, Letters, and Numbers—that are embedded in everyday, cross-cultural life experiences.
The early units introduce key language concepts like subject-verb agreement, possessive pronouns, yes-no questions, and demonstratives, while addressing such topics as classroom actions, telling time, nationality, and gender. The later units introduce learners to quantifiers, Wh-questions (who, what, when, where, and why), and past and future tenses, all in the context of ordinary tasks like talking on the telephone, making a weekly schedule, and discussing the weather. Scored quizzes appear in each unit and a mastery test can be administered after every two units, making it easy for instructors to monitor student progress. As they work through the lessons, students are rewarded with gentle encouragement ("Good choice") for correct responses, and given two tries before receiving hints for wrong answers.
In the Dialog lessons, repeating characters Maria, Judy, Shawn, and Ken congregate at, in, and around a school that easily passes for either a middle school or a high school, creating a sense of continuity from unit to unit. While the animation lacks the bells and whistles of, say, CompassLearning Odyssey ELL Elementary, preteen learners will appreciate the more sophisticated, "cool" nature of these graphics.
Students can choose from eight assistive languages, including Spanish, Mandarin, and Korean, which in today's cross-cultural classrooms can be an invaluable tool for educators. Teachers who prefer total immersion or collaborative study can instruct students to work without any assistive languages.
Ana Schwartzman is an ELL instructor and freelance writer based in San Francisco.