English Learners

The Role of Technology for ELL Students in the Classroom

10 Min Read
WF1860805 The Role of Technology for ELL Students in the Classroom Hero

It’s fascinating to think about how our interactions with technology are truly engrained in our everyday lives. It is also fascinating to realize how little time we spend thinking about its impact on our day-to-day activities. Everything from turning on our lights when we wake up and unlocking our phones to checking the morning’s messages to calculating how much time it will take to arrive to work in the morning are influenced by technology.

The other night, my family and I were discussing a family member’s upcoming birthday celebration. We sat around discussing where we’d like to go and what kind of cuisine we’d like to eat. After discussing several different food options, we kept landing on taking her to have her favorite dish, ropa vieja, a classic Cuban dish. At that moment, I decided to use my phone to search for “ropa vieja restaurants.” In a few seconds, the search engine generated a list of all the Cuban restaurants within a 25-mile radius. The search didn’t translate the words “ropa vieja” into English, nor did it generate a list of all Latin restaurants in the area; it only listed Cuban restaurants. It was at this moment that a light bulb turned on—I realized the true, subtle power of assistive technology. The technology tool I used had not only detected the language of the words I searched, but it was also able to connect the words “ropa vieja” to Cuban cuisine. This was brilliant!

This realization got me thinking about how we could harness the power of technology to discern both language and culture to support the learning progressions of multilingual students in our classrooms. Ultimately, my simple dinner search experience got me thinking: “What is the role of assistive technology for ELL students in the classroom?”

A note on language: we use the common phrases multilingual learner, English learner, and English language learner, along with the acronym ELL, but we also recognize that students who are learning English do not fit neatly into a single label.

What Is Assistive Technology for ELL Students?

Assistive technology for multilingual learners can be found in varying resources. One article notes that assistive technology are tools that help to create more equitable environments and make tasks and activities accessible at school, work, and home. As a dual language teacher, I was often impressed by how multilingual students bring not only a wide array of language skills but also a wealth of culture and experiences to enrich their everyday interactions in the classroom. According to one study, educational technology serves as an additional platform to elevate the assets that multilingual learners bring to their classrooms while also helping to support their access to the content being learned throughout the day.

Most recently, the popularity of artificial intelligence (AI) in education has surged. Although a fairly new concept in education, early adopters of adaptive technology to support multilingual learners have seen significant academic gains using Amira. Proponents of the technology point out that the power of AI is nothing like the stereotype of imaginary worlds where human interactions are no longer necessary. In fact, research suggests that these tools can boost multilingual learners’ productivity by providing environments with automatic feedback, intelligent tutoring, and personalized learning experiences, all while enhancing students’ proficiency in the target language.

Additionally, AI continues to receive recognition and praise from experts in the field. In this article, experts cite the power of AI to promote equity for multilingual students by providing individualized learning pathways and producing data that has been typically challenging for educators to gather in a timely fashion. With the advent of AI, educators are able to customize learning experiences and make informed instructional decisions for all students. The result is a more equitable learning environment for students with language proficiency support needs. As this article reminds us, educators are the most significant factor in students’ academic success. AI can neither build relationships with students nor replace teachers.

As a dual language teacher, I was often impressed by how multilingual students bring not only a wide array of language skills but also a wealth of culture and experiences to enrich their everyday interactions in the classroom.

Dr. Giselle Carpio-Williams

Vice President Multilingual Advocacy & Content

Benefits of Integrating Technology to Help ELL Students

It seems like every current article about multilingual student education includes at least a mention of some new innovative use of technology. So rapid and prominent is this influx of assistive technology that it has even caught the attention of the US Department of Education. The office recently published a report highlighting myriad benefits that assistive technology brings to a classroom and, in particular, one with multilingual learners. Technology enhances opportunities that may have otherwise been unattainable due to language barriers for students.

An aha moment for me happened when a researcher likened technology support to being more like an electric bike and less like a robot vacuum; basically, human interaction is still key to any technology’s successful outcome with students! Although most educators’ sentiments have been positive around the benefits of technology to help multilingual students, this article reminds us that teachers should remain mindful of certain criteria when evaluating technology for their classrooms. Can you start small until you determine what fits best? Are you able to monitor biases within the tools as students engage? Does this tool support increased engagement for students, or does it replicate longstanding inequalities in education?

Tips for Integrating Technology Resources into the Classroom

Finding the right technology to assist multilingual students in our classrooms can feel daunting. With new technology seemingly popping up daily, and considering the various languages, cultures, and stages of student English language acquisition, selecting the right technology for enriching student engagement can feel almost impossible.

So, how can you identify assistive technology that is supportive of multilingual students? There are varying opinions on what criteria should be used to determine effective tools. This toolkit provides some common tips shared by experts in the field:

  1. Start with learning objectives, and find tools that fit the needs.
  2. Technology should enhance, not replace, instruction.
  3. Provide clear, multimodal supports for using technology.
  4. Plan for multiple opportunities throughout the day to incorporate technology—they should be authentic and mirror how students would use technology in their daily lives.
  5. Create a positive and inclusive learning environment that respects diversity, culture, and language.
  6. Reflect on your technology’s effectiveness—ask your multilingual students for feedback; they’re the best judge of how it’s going!

Additionally, this toolkit provides some questions you may ask when seeking to determine the right fit for your students’ needs:

  • Does the technology support diverse language needs?
  • How does the technology promote language acquisition?
  • Does the technology facilitate personalized learning?
  • How does the technology encourage collaboration and communication?
  • Does the technology provide assessment and progress monitoring?

Activity Ideas for How Assistive Technology Can Be Incorporated with Students

As educators, we know that the introduction of technology into classrooms can be a game changer when it comes to the engagement and motivation for students. The incorporation of technology into classrooms creates not only a motivating environment but also the potential for a diverse set of information to guide instructional support for every student. In the 2011 article “Supporting English Language Learners Through Technology,” authors Elizabeth Brooke and Debra Duckworth point to the fact that technology can help English language learners find a voice during the learning of new content and aid with bridging their learning into a new language.

The US Department of Education, as well as other academic experts, share guidance on effective activities to use with multilingual learners in classrooms. The activities often fall into distinct categories of support:

  • Academic content tools (e.g., simulation tools, glossaries)
  • Productivity tools (e.g., presentation and publication tools)
  • Communication tools (e.g., video conferencing, discussion boards)

Try the following three activities that incorporate technology to support students in their learning.

Digital Camera Dictionaries

This activity is a fun way to help students develop and enhance their Tier I vocabulary! Ask students to use digital cameras (phone cameras work) to document their day at school. Ask students to take pictures of what they encounter at school. Pictures of everyday items throughout the day, like forks and spoons at lunch, balls and jump ropes during recess, desks and pencils in class, and stairs and signs in the hallways, are common items they see every day. Ask the students to create slideshows of their pictures with the correct vocabulary word to match and share with their partner or class to reinforce their vocabulary.

You’re the Narrator!

This activity gives students the opportunity to use short, animated films with no dialogue to practice their speaking by using their own voices to narrate and tell the story of the film. Multilingual students in your class may vary in language proficiency levels—from beginner to advanced learners. Short films typically follow universal stories that aren’t too difficult to understand. This flexibility creates a great opportunity for every student in the class to have a go at being the narrator and participate in the activity! There are many short videos that can work across different video websites and streaming platforms, and this article provides some examples of ones that can be used.

Voyage into Idioms Using AI

This is a great activity to provide older students with opportunities to clarify common idioms that frequently cause confusion when learning English. Idioms are a lot of fun but can often create misconceptions about the message they are trying to deliver. A clear example could be, “Why is a piece of cake easy? Good cake is actually hard to make!”

Instead of worrying too much about where the terms came from, ask students to use an AI platform to create an image of a common idiom. The first image will commonly need to be improved several times until the image generated finally produces a reflection of the meaning the idiom is trying to convey. The goal of this activity is for the student to process the idiom’s English meaning for clarity.

In addition to the above ideas, here are more examples of effective tools and activities:

  • Virtual worlds and experiences using VR technology to explore new content (exploring a new country being studied or visiting a museum abroad)
  • Virtual manipulatives to help model mathematical thinking
  • Speech-to-text and text-to-speech tools during literacy instruction to support the communication of ideas
  • Video presentations to share learning and incorporate students’ knowledge base on a subject
  • Publish a digital story about a memorable day; these may include music, images, and/or video
  • Closed-captioning tools to enhance understanding during lessons in content areas like math, science, and social studies
  • Articulation tools to assist with accurate production of language, such as by showing images of how a sound should be produced; recording and listening to students’ own voices to compare with the model

List of Helpful Technology Tools for English Language Learners

You’ve read all about technology’s importance in multilingual students’ learning. So, what assistive technology can you start using in your classroom? Below are some technology tools for ELL students for you to consider.

  • Language Learning Apps and Websites: Duolingo, Quizlet, Rosetta Stone, Storybird, and VoiceThread
  • Multimedia and Creative Tools: Canva, Flipgrid, Powtoon, and Screencastify
  • Collaboration and Communication Tools: Google Classroom, Padlet, Skype, Zoom, and Kahoot!
  • Research and Inquiry Tools: Google Scholar, Britannica, Google Earth, WolframAlpha, and Statista

Additionally, HMH tools can also support multilingual students’ learning:

  • Amira: Offers 1:1 reading tutoring and equitable oral reading fluency assessment
  • Writable: Provides automatic writing feedback that benefits all students, especially multilingual students
  • English 3D: Contains built-in support for multilingual students, such as authentic texts and daily formative assessments

As educators, our greatest gift to our students is providing a safe space to learn and grow, especially the ELL students we support. Continuing to incorporate technology into our classrooms is one of the most efficient ways we can help our students soar.

What ELL Technology Tools Do You Use to Support Students?

We’d love to hear from you! Share the tools you’ve used to support your multilingual students, as well as practical tips, with us at shaped@hmhco.com or reach out on Instagram or Facebook.


Want more tips on supporting multilingual learners in the classroom? Read our blog on ELL accommodations in the classroom or differentiation for ELL students.


Address the range of multilingual learners’ needs with our English language development programs.

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