As a point of introduction, I teach French and Italian in the metropolitan area of Sacramento, California. The schools here are typically quite diverse in terms of student ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic status. Since this first assignment asked us to think about a special learning need my students had and how to address it utilizing a technological resource, I wanted to do some deeper thinking about an issue that might be under-addressed in schools in order to have maximal impact on my students’ learning and sense of belonging or connectedness to our classroom community. I teach some wonderful students who have myriad learning needs, so deciding which problem to tackle took some time.
Eventually, I decided to delve into how to meet the needs of students from the surrounding migrant farming communities. These students come to school with surprisingly divergent experiences in education. Some have not attended school anywhere regularly. Some have learned in severely under-resourced environments. Others might have educational experiences with frequent interruptions, while still others might have more “traditional” schooling experiences. Not surprisingly, these students have widely varied levels of literacy in their primary languages as well as English.
Students who have multi-lingual backgrounds have so much to contribute to a world language classroom community. The challenge is that this sub-population of English Language Learners (ELLs) frequently only attend our school until the autumn growing season is completed, and they do not return (if they return at all) until middle spring when local farms begin harvesting once again. During their absence, these students lose touch with their schools, classmates, and teachers. As a result, they continue to experience gaps in their learning, difficulties acclimating to the school environment, and challenges in developing peer relationships.
My questions became obvious. How could I help students who experienced frequent interruptions in their education feel some sense of continuity? How could they be empowered to continue their learning when they were not with us? How could we work together to help them feel connected−to feel a sense of belonging– to a classroom where they were actively engaged in valuable learning experiences? For this assignment, we were to select an “ill-structured” problem. I seemed to have gravitated toward questions that proved to be more of the “wicked” variety instead.
I knew that I wanted to evaluate the abilities of the program Duolingo to meet the needs of these students. I selected Duolingo for a variety of reasons. First, it is FREE, so money would not be an issue! Second, it is a well-known, commonly utilized application. Third, it can be downloaded onto any smart phone or used on a computer as well. Fourth, Duolingo has support for schools and teachers who wish to utilize the application in their classrooms. Fifth and finally, the program has numerous languages that could support students from a wide variety of linguistic backgrounds in a variety of settings.
Yet, the vexing nature of these questions I had identified was compounded by the fact that, when I turned to research literature for help, I found almost nothing regarding teaching students who had fragmented educational experiences in the world language classroom. How could I effectively evaluate a program for the needs of my students without grounding my investigation in research?
Ultimately, I turned to an article from DeCapua and Marshall (2010) for assistance in evaluating technological tools that might benefit this student population. Their research focused on a five-month intervention in a high school English class for “students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE)” (p. 50). Admittedly, this was not a world language classroom.; however, the researchers developed an instructional model called the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP) that proved useful as a framework for evaluating the utility of Duolingo. Through MALP, DeCapua and Marshall outlined what they felt were the basic needs of ELLs who had limited/interrupted formal education. First, these students needed “immediate relevance and interconnectedness” (p. 54). Second, teachers needed to bridge “learning through oral transmission to learning from the written word”, and third, teachers needed to “focus directly on academic tasks that help these students develop their critical thinking skills” (p. 54).
Based upon these criteria, I determined that Duolingo would be beneficial in meeting many albeit not all of these criteria. In the first regard, the application has numerous benefits. The vocabulary taught is composed of high frequency words needed in everyday conversation. In addition, it provides some basic grammar information for students. Since the application focuses on real world communication, students will quickly see its relevance. Also since Dulingo can be downloaded for free on their smart phones, the students will have ample opportunity to utilize it no matter where they are. To assist with their sense of interconnectedness and motivation to actually engage with the software on a regular basis, Duolingo offers opportunities for the students to compete against one another through leader boards, to accumulate points and virtual gems, to receive immediate and specific feedback, etc. Since the application is free and online, the students in question could, in theory, continue their learning and some measure of continued connectedness with their peers regardless of their location.
Dulingo is also helpful in terms of helping students bridge learning orally to learning with text. Vocabulary lessons feature pictures, text in English, as well as text and audio in the target language. This is truly helpful for English language learners as the utilization of visuals, bi lingual text, and audio all reinforce each other and what was learned in the classroom. In addition, the brief grammatical explanations also reinforce grammatical concepts learned in class that they can also apply to other classes. This also helps students bridge the gap from learning from orally and auditorly to learning through print. Furthermore, the students could sign up for free for lessons in English for Spanish-speakers for example.
The only aspect of DeCapua and Marshall’s (2010) MALP model whose fit with Duolingo was a bit dubious for me was the third. I do think that Duolingo can assist this population of students focus on academic learning. The application reinforces and deepens that done in class. As mentioned previously, it offers immediate feedback and even provides checkpoints for the students. I am not sure how much the program increases critical thinking skills however. In spite of that potential exception, I do believe that English language learners, especially those who have interrupted and/or limited experiences in school would greatly benefit from utilizing Duolingo in the language classroom.
Here’s a brief screencast showing some of the beneficial aspects of Duolingo I discussed. This is also one of my very first screencasts, and I’m getting over a cold. Be kind! LOL
DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H. W. (2010). Serving ELLs With Limited or Interrupted Education: Intervention That Works. TESOL Journal, 1(1), 49-70. doi:10.5054/tj.2010.214878
GDJ. (2016, February 08). Colorful Question Head Circles 9 [Digital image]. Retrieved May 20, 2017, from https://openclipart.org/detail/240442/colorful-question-head-circles-9