By Poyan Lotfi
Back in 2005 I wrote a rather hasty article for Tech&Learning in which I pretty much denounced the use of technology in classrooms. I have radically rethought my position after teaching for nine years and realizing that I use it in some form or another almost every day. I am a convert. In fact, teaching an ESL classroom in a public middle school with a variety of levels of language proficiency in one classroom can be quite a challenge. Sometimes it is the mere use of technology that makes it possible. In this article, I would like to shine a spotlight on some programs, apps, and websites that I have used in my classroom to teach ESL as I rethink the benefits of technology a decade later.
1. Select and Speak is a free Chrome app that can be added to the Google browser to help students listen to text read aloud to them from the Internet. The voice has gotten more human and less robotic over the years. The speed can be adjusted and students can choose to listen to the text in a male or female voice. Since I first discovered Select and Speak, there are now many more such programs. Two competing text-to-speak programs, also free apps students can download on Chrome, are Announcify and Speak It! These apps only work with the Internet, so for students typing in Word, Microsoft has a command that can be added to the tool bar that will read Word Docs aloud. All the programs above are really useful for scaffolding reading for English learners by making the task of reading text easier.
2. Quizlet.com is another resource that I use in my classroom often. This website is great. It allows students to study vocabulary in an interactive and deliberate way with spelling, matching, listening, and simple reading activities with the guidance of pictures if the teacher choose to add them. Teachers can create quizzes and class lists for only a $25 annual subscription, and there is no cost to the students to use the site if their teachers don’t set up a class account. At our school, student computers remember students’ progress and save their scores in the main screen. I use the saved scores to see what terms/words students need more practice with. The program allows you to select only those words that students missed for further study or more focused practice. It is a great and efficient way to study vocabulary.
3. Breaking English News is an online news website for English Language Learners. The articles are high interest, current, and adapted from major news publications. The articles are so timely that it is very easy to then find on the Internet – YouTube or VOA Video – corresponding videos to go with them. The website is free and provides interactive activities for most of its newer articles. The activities include sentence and word scrambles, gap fill activities, recordings of dictations, and articles that can be heard read aloud in usually either an American female or British male voice. While the format of the online activities doesn’t seem very up-to-date, the content is extremely appropriate for English Language Learners. With each lesson, the website also provides free paper-pencil activities such as discussion questions, quizzes, leveled readings of the articles, role plays, and more. If I were ever to teach English overseas again, this website would probably be the “textbook” I would use.
4. Duolingo is another great free site that exists for language learners (especially Spanish speakers). Students can set up free accounts using their email address and their progress will be saved. I am currently using it to learn Spanish. However because the activities use both English and Spanish, I am experimenting with it to teach newcomers basic English words and phrases. Students can begin by taking a placement test or choose to start with the basics. The site is extensive, and there are a lot of extra features, such as opportunities to test out of certain levels, strengthen skills, and the opportunity for more advanced language learners as well to translate longer passages. It is a great resource that I am exploring! The one caveat is that the site has a discussion board, which is open to anyone, so teachers need to carefully monitor their students’ use of the program.
5. Scholastic’s System 44, Scholastic Reading Inventory, and Reading Counts are three programs that have been purchased by my school. Unfortunately these programs are not free and do carry a hefty price tag. However, Scholastic is a very reputable company that has produced a lot of kid-friendly material. They have a track record with schools and students are very familiar with their books. In Reading Counts, students read Scholastic books and answer simple comprehension questions over the books and quizzes are automatically graded and scores are given. Students can take quizzes up to three times. System 44 aimed at students who are learning to identify letter sounds and to read the decoding level. Here again is another extensive program, and there is a slew of activities students use to read aloud, spell, and identify words and letters sounds. Last, the Scholastic Reading Inventory is a reading test our school gives to students three times a year to access their reading level or lexile. We use the growth on this test to place students in classes and for intervention purposes.
To conclude, my opinion has altered ten plus years later. Technology is not something to be ridiculed. Rather the opposite, it is what has enabled me to teach to many different levels in my ESL classroom. It provides immediate feedback and opportunities for differentiated learning. The teacher I am today looks back dumbfounded at the opinions of the skeptical student teacher I was nearly nine years ago. I was very wrong and naïve in my opinion of technology. Luckily time has correct that point of view.
Ms. Poyan Lotfi is an ESL teacher at Southport 6th grade Academy and Southport Middle Schools in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has a decade of experience teaching ESL and Language Arts to middle and high school students. Some of her favorite educational websites include VOA, YouTube, Time for Kids, Quizlet, EL Civics, and Breaking English News.