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Technology in the ESL classroom

New York Teacher
Technology in the ESL classroom

ESL students as Emma Lazarus HS in Manhattan practice English by making informational videos on an iPad for other class members.

Technology offers powerful visual and audio resources for students who may have limited or no English skills. At Emma Lazarus HS, a transfer school for ESL students where I teach, every staff member is trained in ESL strategies developed by our instructional coach, Caroline LoBuglio, and technology is used to bring those strategies to life in our classrooms.

If you talk, students may not know what you’re saying, but if you show an image, it can spark understanding. Document cameras, smartboards and even simple Google Image searches can be useful to explain complex topics or even basic vocabulary. Video clips are also helpful, but because we can’t access YouTube, that can be tricky in New York City schools. I frequently use, a site with a repository of thousands of videos taken from famous movies. The DOE Web filter doesn’t block, and the site includes helpful warnings if clips are inappropriate for children. These videos have helped my students learn vocabulary and concepts such as characterization, setting, theme and mood.

Audio tools are important to help students both understand spoken English and practice their own verbal skills. When I embarked on a speech project with students, we played videos from the TED Talks series ( and analyzed what made some speeches effective and why others were boring.

We use a host of applications in which students can hear English spoken correctly and can record and listen as they themselves speak. We use tools built into student laptops such as Sound Recorder or PhotoStory, or apps on the iPad such as GarageBand or iMovie. (You would be surprised how quickly students with very limited English learn to use iPads. Because we use iPads so frequently in multiple classrooms, any learning curve that exists disappears within the first month of the school year.)

Modeling is also valuable for ESL students, so they hear and see English being spoken by native speakers. Modeling helps the students better understand the end product of the task they have been given. It’s also easy to call up completed student projects from previous years if they have shared or stored this work online.

We make a regular practice of documenting projects through photos or videos. We use Google Drive along with Vimeo (accessible through the DOE filter) to share projects and student work. Students can see examples of “best” work and also some not-so-best work to better understand expectations.

Collaborative, project-based group work is a cornerstone of our school. We organize students into the most diverse groups possible so that English is the common language they must rely upon to work together. Group work naturally includes student conversation, so English language skills are inherently developed. And, of course, project-based learning goes hand in hand with technology. These collaborative groups start out by practicing basic conversations and as students acquire more English proficiency, the groups can expand to complex projects such as video creation, research-based assignments and real-world simulations.

Technology is just a tool, but it’s a tool that enables English language learners to use, practice and perfect their English in engaging and effective ways.