Why Language Learning Apps Haven’t Helped Struggling ELL Students

Why Language Learning Apps Haven’t Helped Struggling ELL Students

When asked what technology he used while learning English, Bryan Estrada fidgeted nervously as he contemplated whether or not he should share a personal story with a stranger.

“There was this girl...,” stammered Estrada, a native Spanish-speaking sophomore from Yes Prep High School in Texas. “My friends pushed me, even though I was really nervous, and we started texting,” he continued. “That was the first thing I did to learn English.”

Estrada fell for a girl who only spoke English his freshman year in high school but refused to let a language barrier divide them. After moving to the United States from Guatemala a little more than a year ago, love, not a new app or platform, propelled him to pick up a new language.

Yet in recent years, technology developers focused their efforts on English Language Learners (ELL) like Estrada. Waves of language learning apps like Babbel and Duolingo have hit the market. But as the number of apps increases, academic achievement for ELL students remains staggeringly low. Ninety-two percent of fourth grade ELL students scored below proficiency on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exams. According to WestEd, a nonprofit research and development organization, older ELL students struggle more than younger ones and are significantly more likely to drop out of high school than their native English-speaking peers.

These students are a fast-growing population in America. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 4.9 million ELL students were enrolled in U.S. schools during the 2013-2014 school year, and the National Education Association predicts that number will increase to 10 million by 2025. (In other words, ELLs will make up one in every four students.)

These alarming demographic statistics, coupled with poor academic performance, are forcing educators to reassess the way they interact with ELL students in their classrooms. “A lot of our students come to the table with rich knowledge in their first language,” says Anna Matis, an education consultant and former ELL student. She says one of the biggest mistakes teachers make is sending students away because they are not learning fast enough. “They make the assumption that because students are not writing in complete sentences right away, that teaching them is a lost cause, and they send them down the hallway to the study room,” she explains. Matis believes that this response from teachers can damage a student’s self-esteem or motivation to learn.

Anthony Barela, the principal at Vista High School in California, was searching for technology tools to help ELLs and their teachers when EdSurge interviewed him. “How can we give our students access to information, so it doesn’t have to exhaust the teachers too?” asks Barela. Technology can help make differentiated classroom instruction easier for teachers, he says. But he also hopes to bring culturally relevant content that is relatable for students into classrooms. “The thing that is often hard to find is the cultural component,” says Barela. “If you don’t have a social or emotional connection, you can have all the software in the world but never move forward.”

Estrada learned English by using it in a meaningful, personal way. His story stands out less for its teenage romantic element and more for what it reveals about how ELL students find incentives to embark on the process of successfully learning a new language. Estrada explained that some of his academic struggles stemmed from his teacher's lack of cultural understanding. “In my country, math was taught differently than it is taught here,” he said. He pressed the need for educators to be patient and understand that ELL students were learning new cultures and teaching styles—along with a new language. “We need time, we don’t learn zero to a hundred,” he exclaimed.

Nonprofit organizations, including the Gates Foundation and the NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF), aim to support this growing population of students by providing grants to entrepreneurs. Last fall NSVF launched an ELL Challenge after conducting market research that included over 50 publications and interviews with several ELL instructors, students and experts to identify what educators and ELLs need most. “One thing that pushed us to launch the ELL challenge was the knowledge that there is such a growing number of ELL students,” says Esther Tricoche, an associate partner at NSVF.

What they found severely lacking in the edtech market were tools that provided access to rigorous academic content, social and emotional language learning support, authentic and culturally relevant experiences, and increased engagement opportunities with families and communities.

Thirteen companies and nonprofits received as much as $150,000 in grants from NSVF to fill those market needs. Among the 13 recipients were: Spotlight, a tool that uses video reporting to educate parents on school data; Storyworld, a platform where students can create and read stories in multiple languages; and Listenwise, which recently partnered with NPR to provide students with audio news programs for listening comprehension practice.

For students like Estrada, technologies like these may be the medium to learn English, but relationships with his peers and his teachers are indispensable. “I had a science teacher, and she was really helpful, she would explain things when I didn’t understand,” says Estrada. “I really miss my teacher. I really appreciate that she took her time and tried hard for us.”

Editor’s Note: The maximum grant funding total awarded by NSVF has been corrected.

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