Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Innovative and FREE Strategies to Support English Language Learners in Becoming Information Consumers and Producers

I was a bit intimated about providing a keynote presentation at the NYS Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) conference this month because of my own rather unpleasant memories of being made fun of for my "white" accent in high school, and later in college, Spanish classes. I always envied those who could roll their tongues and speak with a proper accent. I can not. I speak with one accent. It is very Caucasian and often laughed at. I remember when I took Spanish in high school how uncomfortable I was when we had to speak out loud. The other kids seriously laughed out loud at me. I laughed too, because I really did sound ridiculous. Because of this experience, I hated speaking Spanish. Years later, my experience speaking the second language of Spanish gave me a little insight into what English Language Learner (ELL) students may feel. The fear of embarrassment and the trepidation about sounding wrong or different kept me, a normally outspoken kid, pretty quiet. Even though I wanted to learn another language, my discomfort, combined with less than effective instruction, were not a recipe for success. When I went to school to get my master's degree in education, again I was told I'd have to have completed 2 years of language study. Gulp. I couldn't handle the idea of my embarrassing accent so instead I came up with a solution to all that...I took sign language.

The inability to feel comfortable when trying to speak another language has been an issue for me most of my life, that is until I became The Innovative Educator. Today, as an adult, I can read, understand and communicate in more than a dozen languages with some fluency. But it is not because my language acquisition skills have improved, but rather because as innovative educators, we all have a number of resources available to us to support us in understanding and communicating with basic fluency in our non-native language, for free, and without Rosetta Stone.

I have broken the strategies I believe innovative educators will find useful into two categories:

  1. Innovative ways for speakers of languages other than English to CONSUME content.
  2. Innovative ways for speakers of languages other than English to PRODUCE content.

As you read about these strategies, please reflect on ways you can use what I am sharing in your work and consider publishing your feedback, experience, and ideas in comments to this post.

To set the tone for those wondering if I can really speak multiple languages with an accent that is not laughable, please allow me greet you in a few different languages at Global Welcome from The Innovative Educator. If you speak any of the languages in my greetings, you'll notice that while not perfect, the accent is respectable and you can understand the intent of my message. I've come a long way! There's much more available to provide affordable and innovative resources to students to enable them to break the language barrier and become effective consumers and producers of information. To follow are ideas I find particularly promising.


One of the best ways to help students get excited about learning anything is by helping them discover and explore areas of deep personal interest and passion
. (To learn more read these articles from ISTE Connect -
Engage Me or Enrage Me! (Pt.1) / Engage Me or Enrage Me! (Pt.2).

Ideas for ELLs @ school / home.
  • Technorati

    • Help students by showing them how they can use technorati to find people who are blogging about topics of interest.

  • Convert Text to Speech

    • We all know that student’s listening level is higher than their reading level. How about enabling them to access more difficult material by suggesting they find websites that read passages with tools like Odigo. While the voice is rather robotic, it does provide students with the ability to access the content. Here are some useful text to speech (tts) tools to help students consume information.
    • Odigo for Websites and Blogs
    • iSpeech - For any text
    • Online Translator - for performing real-time translation for various languages
    • TTS Voice presented by animated speaking characters will read the text in the most realistic, human-sounding way in a variety of languages: English U.S., Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian and European Spanish.
    • Why: Educational Value of Text to Speech (TTS)

  • Google Translation Tools

    • Google Webpage Translation Gadget: Since your students are ELLs recommend they find blogs that use translation tools such as The Google Translation Gadget or BabbleFish. These tools let you take any blog and translate it into more than a dozen languages. If the blog does not have a tool for a blog or site that may be valuable, a student can write to the author asking them to install this tool.
    • Google Translate: If your student is reading content that does not have a translation tool, use Google Translate to translate the entire page.
    • Google Translated Search: Enter a search phrase in your own language to find information in other languages.
    • Google Toolbar: Or your student can use the translate tool in the Google toolbar to translate specific words by hoovering over them.
    • Google Reader: Show them how to subscribe to these blogs using Google Reader.


    Learning through media (movies, music, etc.) is one of the best ways to learn a new language. The clips below will improve your listening comprehension skills, helping you to learn and practice English as spoken by normal people every day! These particular clips are from recent movies. Good luck!

Ideas for ELLs on the go.
Note: If your school or district has policies banning personal learning devices, you can still empower students to harness the power of technology away from school i.e. as part of their toolbox for life as well as homework.

One of the best ways to help students get excited about learning anything is by helping them become content producers in areas of deep personal interest and passion.

Ideas for ELLs on the go.
  • Google Voice

    • Use Google Voice and set up a widget and have students enter their phone number where they will receive a call from their teacher's Google voice account. Ask them to please leave a message with their spoken one minute report about their selected subject. Here's an example of what this looks like.

    • To get a Google Voice Account visit I received my Google Voice Invite and You Should Too!

Ideas for ELLs @ school / home.
  • Microsoft Word - Word Talk

    • Text to Voice
    • Students can check their writing by having the computer read it back to them.
  • Google Translate

    • Enables students to draft their thoughts in their own language and translate to English. This enables them to participate in all types of online communities such as discussion boards, blogs, chats.
  • Xtranormal

  • Voki

    • Voki provides a great way for students to record their own voice and make talking Avatars that can convey messages, thoughts, ideas.
    • Voki can speak in a number of languages and accents enabling students to communicate in multiple languages.
    • Students can comment on one another's Vokis with their own Vokis.
      Here's an example

  • dotSub

    • Assigned advanced students the task of creating their own subtitles to existing videos.
    • Have students create and upload videos in their native language and work with other students to provide English subtitles.
  • Blogging

    • Blog Commenting (this is the best place to start)

    • Blog Producing (this is for students with deep fluency in their Native language)In native language which can be translated to EnglishIn English which can be translated into their native language

  • Learning / Social Networks

    • Live Mocha

      • "A powerful opportunity for people around the world to connect with language partners" - New York Times

      • Social Language Learning - Online!

      • Learn languages online at your own pace with fun language lessons

      • Connect with foreign language partners around the world

      • Livemocha blends engaging online lessons and the world's largest language learning community to create the most natural way to learn a language.

    • Facebook

      • Communicate with friends who speak other languages.Lurk to read their walls with status updates

    • Ning

      • Set up a school social network for students age 13 and up

      • Encourage students to communicate and connect

  • Virtual Worlds
    • Second Life

    • The 3D virtual world "Second Life" is full of places to practice a foreign language - you can speak with real people all over the world. In 2007 Second Life introduced a voice system, so you can now talk with people just like in real life.

      Best of all - it won't cost you a penny! Second Life is free to use, so you can travel to foreign countries, practice a language and make new friends - absolutely free - all from the comfort of your computer.

    • Read more at ESL in Second Life - Learning English in Second Life

  • Physical Worlds
    • Meetup
    • Do something • Learn something Share something • Change something
    • Helps learners become independent
    • Join or start

Funding Innovation
Providing students with access to innovative learning tools and resources is a right, not a privilege. It is up to educators to help students gain access to resource that will help them learn, consume, and produce content. In some schools you will find that students already own and have access to a number of personal learning devices. It is the job of the educator to support students in harnessing the power of their personal learning devices at and away from school. If districts and schools allow, teachers should be incorporating student-owned devices into instruction and supplementing that with purchased devices. Today you can get a highly functional low-cost laptop for between $300 - $500. You can read a nice comparison of brands here.

Just as we wouldn't allow a hearing impaired student to be without a hearing aid and/or other assistive technology, or a visually impaired student to be without glasses, schools must do whatever they can to provide their students with innovative technologies that will support their learning. Here are my top two suggested ways to fund innovation at your school.

Funding Source 1

A tremendous resource for funding innovation.

A tremendous resource for funding innovation that includes funding news, grant deadlines, and more.

Funding Source 2

Email me and I'll feature your project on The Innovative Educator's Giving Page at Donor's Choose.

Write a guest post for my blog about what you'd like to do and I'll publish it.

Planning for Innovation
Once you've determined some ideas for educating innovatively, it is time to incorporate that into your unit plan. This handy Technology Integration Planning tool is the perfect resource to get you or your school started. It is a Google collaborative document so you can plan for innovation across your school. The tool also supports teachers in aligning their curriculum to both content and technology standards.

Final Thoughts
As a Spanish Language Learner, I was embarrassed by my accent and as a result didn't practice much publicly or with native speakers. This in part is why I never attained basic literacy in Spanish, however, I have shared innovative strategies that provide non-native speakers with a safe space to practice and communicate in a new language. They can participate as much or as little as they choose. Innovative educators and family members can embrace ideas such as these to support students and themselves in communicating, collaborating, and connecting with those whom they do not share a native language. As students gain comfort and fluency, teachers and families can work with students to become active and authentic consumers and producers of information in ways and in areas that are meaningful, important, and authentic.

Blogs for further reading:

Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…
…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

ELL Classroom

Share your thoughts about topics in this post:
Use your phone to text your feedback at Polleverywhere by visiting: http://theinnovativeeducator.wikispaces.com/ELL+Keynote+Polls.


  1. As a leader in Spanish language education, Mester is dedicated to providing international students with the opportunity to feel, enjoy, and be a part of a unique way of life different from their own. At Mester, education does not end in the classroom. We make sure that each and every one of the activities we organize for our students brings a different facet of Spanish culture to life.

  2. Hi:

    Great article. I am the Director Of Operations and Language Services at dotSUB, and would love to have a conversation with you regarding your innovative ideas, education and how dotSUB can be utilized.

    Please feel free to drop me a line.



  3. Remember to go to Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day. Larry has some of the most interesting and comprehensive libraries of Web applications for English Language Learners that I've seen.

  4. Thanks! This is a great post and useful for me.