In August 2016, NewSchools Ignite launched the English Language Learning Challenge – open to entrepreneurs developing engaging, technology-enabled learning experiences, assessments and other digital tools that support English Language Learners in Kindergarten through 12th grade.
One critical aspect of the United States’ increasing racial, socioeconomic and cultural diversity is the variety of languages spoken by students and their families. A subset of these students are considered “English Language Learners (ELLs)” – students who are “in the process of actively acquiring English” and whose “primary language is one other than English”. Varying estimates predict that ELL students will make up as much as 25 percent of the student population within the next 10 years. With this trend in mind, the achievement gap between ELL students and their peers is startling: 92 percent of 4th grade ELL students scored below proficient in reading on the NAEP; ELL students are four times as likely to drop out of high school than native English speakers.
Read more about the importance of English Language Learning.
Based on conversations with a diverse group of educators, entrepreneurs and thought leaders, we believe technology is well poised to support ELL students by: making rigorous academic content accessible to students of all language levels, addressing social and emotional aspects of language learning, enabling language learning experiences that are more authentic and culturally relevant, and increasing opportunities for engagement with parents and families.
Read more about how technology can address critical needs for English Language Learners.
We’ve developed a program to support the most promising companies and nonprofits working in this space to learn, connect and grow together. In addition to grant funding, challenge winners will receive feedback and hands-on support from best-in-class educators, researchers, entrepreneurs and technology professionals.
Read more about the NewSchools Ignite virtual accelerator program.
We are looking for companies and nonprofits developing products that:
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One critical aspect of the United States’ increasing racial, socioeconomic and cultural diversity is the variety of languages spoken by students and their families. In many of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, more than 150 languages are spoken, with between 25 and 50 percent of the population above age four speaking a language other than English at home. Students from households that speak languages other than English – like all children – enter the classroom with a broad range of academic skills including language proficiency. A subset of these students are considered “English Language Learners (ELLs)”, defined as students who are “in the process of actively acquiring English” and whose “primary language is one other than English”.
According to the National Council of Teachers of English, ELL students are “highly heterogeneous … with diverse gifts, educational needs, backgrounds, languages, and goals”:
Some ELL students come from homes in which no English is spoken, while some come from homes where only English is spoken; others have been exposed to or use multiple languages. ELL students may have a deep sense of their non-U.S. culture, a strong sense of multiple cultures, or identify only with U.S. culture. Some ELL students are stigmatized for the way they speak English; some are stigmatized for speaking a language other than English; some are stigmatized for speaking English. Some ELL students live in cultural enclaves while their fellow ELL students are surrounded by non-ELL families; some ELL students’ families have lived in the U.S. for over a generation. Some may be high achievers in school while others struggle. They may excel in one content area and need lots of support in another. Some feel capable in school while others are alienated from schooling.
In the 2013-2014 school year, nearly five million U.S. students were considered English Language Learners – roughly 10 percent of the student population. Varying estimates predict that ELL students will make up as much as 25 percent of the student population within the next 10 years. With this trend in mind, the achievement gap between ELL students – 60 percent of whom come from low-income households – and their peers is startling: 92 percent of 4th grade ELL students scored below proficient in reading on the NAEP; ELL students are four times as likely to drop out of high school than native English speakers.
The English Language Learning edtech market is somewhat difficult to define because ELL students’ experiences span across multiple learning contexts throughout the school day. In addition to language development, these students are invested in a variety of learning outcomes, many of which can be supported through technology. For these reasons, students and teachers are interested in tools – “integrated with other research-backed instructional practices” – that go beyond translation, vocabulary and grammar to provide opportunities to apply language in the service of authentic academic and social growth.
We selected this gap because we hope to contribute to a future where education technology can better support ELL students’ academic, social and linguistic development. The English Language Learning Challenge is open to entrepreneurs building instructional content, assessments and other digital tools that support K-12 ELL students. Special consideration will be given to technologies that are accessible and usable by a wide range of children — especially traditionally underserved student populations — as well as products that take advantage of the latest research on learning and advances in mobile and social technologies.
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In the months leading up to the launch of the English Language Learning Challenge, we conducted market research – including conversations with teachers, principals, administrators and researchers working in K-12 districts and charter management organizations across the country – to learn more about challenges and opportunities to support English Language Learners. Below we share some of our insights from this research.
Many educators and researchers emphasize that technology alone cannot be framed as a panacea for supporting English Language Learners. Ultimately, technology must operate within real-world classroom environments and provide value to a wide range of students. Truly transformative tools will not attempt to standardize or automate learning within these spaces, but rather will empower ELL students to take ownership of their own knowledge creation. In order to support ELL students, edtech products must also support their teachers through professional development and other instructional resources.
We expect that challenge winners’ products will be feasible for use within a range of classrooms and ELL program models, especially those that are tailored to individual ELL students’ “diverse gifts, educational needs, backgrounds, languages, and goals”. We believe technology is especially well poised to support ELL students by: making rigorous academic content accessible to students of all language levels, addressing social and emotional aspects of language learning, enabling language learning experiences that are more authentic and culturally relevant, and increasing opportunities for engagement with parents and families.
Given a “linguistically diverse”† student population with varying levels of academic language development, educators are looking for tools that enable ELL students to engage with rigorous, developmentally appropriate academic content regardless of language level. Technology holds the potential to support ELL students by enabling multiple linguistic pathways, scaffolding, or multimedia opportunities to engage with content in a home language. Edtech can also facilitate formative assessment and other diagnostic techniques to help teachers tailor instruction to individual ELL students’ academic and language needs.
For many educators, social and emotional learning are “top priorities”† for English Language Learners. Before addressing academic content, it’s important that ELL students feel “safe”† in the classroom – that they know they are valued and have the “same opportunities”† as their peers. Technology can also create new opportunities for students to practice reading, writing, speaking and listening – critical skills for collaborative learning. Building enhanced self-confidence and interpersonal skills can also play a pivotal role in encouraging student voice as well as strengthening relationships among students and teachers.
Educators expressed a desire for content that is connected to the real world (“the best learning tools are authentic”†) and relevant to ELL students’ lived experiences – whether they are “newcomers”, migrant students, refugees or long-term English learners. Learning opportunities must encompass conversational skills as well as academic language, applied in context to support critical reasoning and argumentation. There may also be opportunities for tools that leverage ELL students’ home languages and cultural backgrounds as assets that can contribute to classroom and school communities.
Parents are critical to the success of ELL students, who benefit academically and socially when parents and family members are engaged with their learning experiences. Educators are looking for tools that make it easier to build a strong school-home connections with ELL families, often across languages or cultural differences. Technology can also be helpful for engaging with community partners, helping schools build support networks that include access to resources like interpreters and cultural liaisons.
†: Quotes from “NewSchools Ignite: English Language Learning Challenge market research interviews” (June-July 2016).
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