Sunday, February 12, 2017

Translation Tools For Newcomer English Learners

Webster's definitions of a newcomer include (1) one recently arrived, or (2) a beginner, rookie. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Education defines a newcomer as a foreign-born student who has recently arrived in the United States (USDOE, Newcomer Tool Kit).  I'm not a beginning teacher nor am I a recent immigrant or new language learner, however, I am now a newcomer.

Last week, I made a lateral move to a neighboring district closer to home and as I reflect on my first week, I relate well to newcomer English learners who often feel lost and anxious. While I may be a fluent English speaker and an experienced educator, I'm still a newcomer to the culture, lingo, and nuances of a new and larger school district.  However, in order to thrive, not just merely survive, I must focus on that which I do well and not allow the unknown aspects of my new position to cause me to lose momentum.  I can't let what I cannot do, interfere with what I can do.

I share John Wooden's words pictured above with my newcomer English learners almost daily and I also share them with content area teachers who feel as overwhelmed about teaching newcomers as are the students about learning. Language barriers make teaching and learning appear to be a monumental task, but we must focus on what they can do, rather than what they can't. We can find ways to make content comprehensible so they can learn which is why they attend school in the first place.

One simple way to help learners comprehend the course content is to use translation tools. Even if they may have a helpful classroom buddy, technology tools help our newcomers help themselves. Here are a few favorites that many of my students have found tremendously helpful.
  • iTools Translate Web
    • Powered by Google Translate, iTools will translate web pages to and from more than 20 languages. If a web resource is not available in the student's native language, this tool will quickly and easily translate the entire webpage. 
  • Lingro
    • Lingro enables users to instantly look up the translation and play the pronunciation for any word on any given webpage by simply clicking on the word. It also provides definitions in English. Webpages will not look much different until users click on a word.
  • Linguee
    • This unique tool is a dictionary with a search engine that enables newcomers to search for bilingual texts, words and expressions to check meanings and contextual translations. Many learners use it in conjunction with Google Images.
  • Google Translate
    • Last, but not least. A go-to app for many travelers, Google Translate translates words and phrases between more than 50 languages. While it's unrealistic for newcomers to translate pages and pages of documents, it certainly is helpful for translating sentences or even short passages. I also highly recommend it for communicating with learners. I've used it on many occassions to communicate basic instructions to newcomers who speak a language other than English or Spanish and find it to be nearly as accurate as a human translator. 
While using these tools is generally not permitted during standardized tests, they can certainly be beneficial in helping students complete classroom and homework assignments, increasing comprehensiblity and productive engagement. Also, keep in mind that these tools are simply a scaffold and are not to be used indefinitely.  They are like training wheels to help them get started. As they develop English language proficiency, and are no longer newcomers, they will eventually wean themselves off of translation tools.

Furthermore, lessons and assessments must be adapted and modified to meet learners' needs. Check out Teachers First's resource: Adapt-A-Strategy - Adjusting Lessons ESL/ELL Students. It's also crucial to implement strategies that will enhance and accelerate both content and language learning.  I recommend reading "Seven Teaching Strategies for Classroom Teachers of ELLs". I think you'll find those strategies helpful to all students, not just English learners. Also, be sure to reach out to your building's ESL teacher for tips and strategies for reaching those newcomer students in your classes. If your state is a member of the WIDA Consortium, request to obtain a copy of your newcomers' "Can-Do Descriptors" if you don't have them already.

Just because newcomers don't speak English doesn't mean they can't learn and just because you may not share a common language doesn't mean you can't teach them. While overcoming a language barrier may appear to be a daunting task, it certainly is not impossible to overcome and technology makes it just a little easier.