English-Language Learners

Using Technology to Break Down Language Barriers in the Classroom

Ich weiß es nicht? ¿No sé? Я не знаю? 我不知道 Teachers have heard the phrase “I don’t know?” in almost every language. Still, they take on a different meaning when the words come from a student really struggling to learn English. We see the frustration in their eyes when our English learners can’t communicate with peers and participate fully in class. Though English is the dominant language in this country, teachers across the globe experience this same challenge. This became clear to me recently while attending an international educator summit in Budapest, hosted by Microsoft. There I saw firsthand the universal difficulty teachers face helping students who are new to their country acquire a second language. We all had stories of the energetic girl who has moved from her native country, where she once displayed confidence and a love of learning, but who now feels like a stranger. Whether she has moved to Bangkok or Burbank, her teachers see her daily struggle just to get by without looking, saying or doing something “weird.” The teachers I met in Budapest acknowledged that when a student is unable to communicate at school, her confidence as a learner dries up. Fortunately we learned about new tools that can help us open doors for our learners acquiring a new language.

Finding a “Hack”

At the summit, we were arranged into teams, and each team was given the assignment to “find a hack.” A hack, we were told, is “an innovative, possible solution to a common classroom problem that can be universally implemented.” Our goal was to find a solution for breaking down language barriers in our classrooms. Educators at the summit represented 73 nations, with very few speaking English as their first language, so we truly needed to find a way communicate quickly and clearly. Our team was able to create an environment where work from students speaking languages other than our own could be assigned, collected and evaluated. Using an embedded translation tool (we used OneNote), students could click on words and phrases they did not know, and instantly it would be translated. It was such a relief to discover such a powerful tool that can serve all students, and one that is especially helpful for students learning the dominant language of the culture. As teachers, we were excited by the opportunity to now connect with our students by embedding videos, docs, spreadsheets, slideshows and even lecture notes that can be translated instantly. Now students can share works with their classmates and teachers in their native language. It is gratifying to know that all over the globe, kids are kids. Students moving to a country where they don’t speak the native language will still struggle to acquire new language skills and to fit in. But it’s also great to know that there are tools we can use to help them.
Sarah Loomis works for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) as an instructional technology coach in Kaiserslautern, Germany. She was selected as DoDEA’s State Teacher of the Year for 2015 and as a Microsoft Innovative Education Expert in December, 2015. Being an instructional technology coach provides Sarah an opportunity to plan and co-teach with her peers, build and lead ...

Join the Movement