When ELA Tools Can’t Adapt to Students’ Native Language

Personalized Learning

When ELA Tools Can’t Adapt to Students’ Native Language

By Jen Curtis     Jun 29, 2017

When ELA Tools Can’t Adapt to Students’ Native Language

The rapidly growing population of English Language Learners in the U.S. has caught the eye of the edtech market. As the demographics shift, an increasing number of products are being designed to support ELL students, and a number of existing ELA and literacy products are pivoting to expand their audience to include the ELL community.

Translation—whether by an in-house team of language experts, third-party translators or translation software—is often the first step for these companies. But not all translations are created equal. So what happens when translations fail?

Carmina Mendoza is dealing with this frustration first hand. As a bilingual teacher working with a mix of native English and Spanish speaking fifth-graders, she regularly uses adaptive online programs like DreamBox and Achieve3000 to tailor instruction to her students' needs in both math and ELA. But for her native Spanish speakers, Mendoza says there’s a catch: Many online programs fall short of claims to provide accurate translations, leaving many students—particularly native Spanish speakers—behind.

“These programs aren’t intuitive,” Mendoza explains. “They’re text-driven. And if students can’t read the directions, they can’t access the information.”

According to Mendoza, who grew up in Spain, part of the problem lies in the fundamental linguistic differences between Spanish and English: “There is such a variation between written and spoken Spanish, academic and colloquial Spanish—much more so than in English.” She explains that translating an English sentence into Spanish word-for-word doesn’t always make sense, and sometimes needs to craft a completely new question on the spot so students can understand.

Mendoza says these issues of translation have major consequences for her Spanish speakers. She uses the popular kids’ novel Diary of a Wimpy Kid to illustrate her point. “In English, it’s written at a fourth-grade reading level. But in Spanish, when you translate, it’s suddenly multisyllabic. It’s more complex...a sixth-grade level book.” When it comes to translations generated by adaptive programs, Mendoza says the Spanish translations tend to follow the same pattern. “The texts suddenly become much more difficult for students to access.”

Trying to adapt...for better or worse

This criticism is something edtech companies have heard before, and are addressing—albeit in very different ways. Achieve3000, a popular ELA platform designed to support readers by matching content at the appropriate Lexile level to each learner, recently introduced its Español literacy solutions suite designed specifically for native Spanish-speakers like Mendoza’s students. Both the directions and content are in Spanish and are differentiated based on reading level.

Susan Gertler, Chief Academic Officer of Achieve3000, acknowledges that the company’s Spanish translations are identified as being a higher Lexile level than their English counterparts, as Mendoza suggests. But, Gertler says, this shouldn’t affect students’ ability to access the material since they’re only assigned materials aligned to their level. “Students level-set in Spanish and are matched with Spanish texts that match that level, not the ones that correlate to the English text they’ve been translated from.”

She says the company enlists a Spanish-speaking team, with literacy experts from Spain, South and Central America, to accurately translate content and determine lexical levels of translation.

Other companies, however, including the popular online platforms IXL Learning and i-Ready, have forgone translating their content into Spanish altogether. Although these companies recognize that an increasing number of ELL students use their products, they maintain that translations aren’t useful unless students already have strong literacy skills in their native language. Many do not.

Eryn Barker, a professional learning specialist for IXL Learning, recommends that teachers assign ELLs material at students' current English reading level rather than translating materials into their native language. In other words, if a Spanish-speaking fifth grader is reading at a kindergarten level, they can use the kindergarten-level English materials, rather than reading a translation. For Barker, a former ESL teacher herself, this makes more sense. “If you have a student who’s not literate in Spanish,” Barker explains, “it’s not always helpful to provide the translation in Spanish unless you’re specifically teaching Spanish literacy skills.”

Although dual-immersion programs like Mendoza’s are on the rise, most English Language Learners are working towards English fluency, not Spanish literacy. Claudia Salinas, vice president of English learning at Curriculum Associates, has been working with i-Ready to better meet Spanish speakers’ needs as they learn English. She explains that i-Ready users have access to vocabulary in their native language, but echoes Barker’s point about the shortcomings of translation: “For students whose first language isn’t strong, translations are really not going to help them.”

As she points out, most students coming into the U.S. don’t have strong literacy skills in their first language. “The research shows the kids coming [into the U.S.] are the most educated and the least educated ever,” Salinas reports. “If you have students coming in with strong first language, I’m all for translation. But if not, you need to figure out how to build English with little to anchor from.”

That’s why i-Ready integrates English-language support “through strategic scaffolds” designed to mitigate student frustration and build English skills. “We have visual supports, images that can help them with language acquisition without the need for native language skills, Salinas says.

“We also have an audio feature that allows English learners to hear a text read aloud multiple times, since generally their listening skills are stronger than their reading skills.”

For students in a typical English class, this makes sense. But where does it leave Mendoza’s Spanish speakers? In her opinion, out of luck, at least when it comes to using online programs. “[Native] English speakers become much higher achieving in English when they use these programs,” Mendoza says—”but for Spanish speakers, the growth is not that great.”

English becomes the language of success—and English speakers more successful—at least for the time being.

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