Unleashing ESL students’ potential with Microsoft Translator 

I am a reading specialist, and my main goal is to provide students with tools to overcome barriers to literacy to promote strong readers, writers and critical thinkers. As an educator, I am always looking for ways to innovate my teaching practices. My lessons with English language learners (ELL) overseas challenge me to not only use best techniques in literacy instruction, but to also stay up-to-date on the most current technologies that will help meet their needs from thousands of miles away.

This past year, I started teaching high school students from China who hope to study in the United States. Due to the vast distance between me and my students, we use Skype to meet for class. This enabled us to meet from anywhere at any time. As a former ELL student myself, I can relate with my students’ need to visualize content as it is essential for comprehension. Therefore, I have always typed out important information, such as key vocabulary or phrases, that I want to emphasize during lessons. The Share Screen feature has made it possible for students to follow the lesson by looking at a PowerPoint or OneNote notebook with charts and notes. Often, however, the language barrier can be impeding, regardless of how many ways I may try to explain the meaning of a word or concept.

Recently, I began to work with James, an ELL student with a strong background in English grammar, vocabulary and reading accuracy. Yet, he struggled with verbal communication and comprehension. During our Skype lessons, it quickly became clear that James was not fully engaged in our lessons. It took him a while to respond to my questions or prompts throughout the lessons. Even with visuals and written instructions, James really struggled to understand concepts and was becoming frustrated. This led me to modify my lessons. Instead of working on higher level thinking in our discussions, we had to work on basic comprehension. I needed to find a way for him to follow what I was saying throughout the lessons.

During this time, I was attending a technology conference (International Society for Technology in Education—ISTE) in Chicago, and I learned about Microsoft Translator. As I tried out the translator demo, I realized that this was not like other translation applications. Microsoft Translator (available on PowerPoint, as an app for mobile devices, as well as on the web) documents your dialogue as you speak into your microphone and provides live captions on the screen of anyone that is part of the conversation. In addition, anyone who joins the conversation (from one person to a large group of people) can choose which language they wish the information to be translated into. The most exciting feature for me was the one that allowed you to read information in English and in another language, simultaneously. I became so excited by the possibilities that this would provide for my students that I decided to try it the next day during my morning lesson with James.

While working with James using the Microsoft Translator, I learned more about him in that hour than I had in the prior month of lessons. I learned that James is a visual learner, and that he learns best when he can follow what is being said. I also learned that James is a strong thinker who can look at concepts abstractly, but he struggles finding the right words to express his ideas. For the first time, I saw James smile during our lessons. His high-level of engagement was evident as he quickly responded to my questions and eagerly waited for my responses. I noticed his eyes carefully following the captions on the screen to make sure he was not missing anything. By the end of this transformative lesson, James told me that he could not wait to share the Microsoft Translator app with his parents, who do not speak English, and his friends. He said, “Ms. Mata, the translator helped me feel so much more comfortable during my lesson, and I even learned new vocabulary!”

During our next lesson, we started a young adult novel. As we read together, he could see the captions in English and Chinese. Throughout the chapter, we stopped and discussed important ideas and even symbols in the story. Because he was able to understand what was being discussed, he was also able to respond — in English — and point out different important symbols in the story. At certain points in the lesson, I asked him to share symbols from his own culture and to explain them in Chinese. More recently, I asked James to challenge himself by trying to use only the English captions without the Chinese ones. Though this has been more difficult, he has been able to follow our conversations and effectively communicate while using this tool to help him stay engaged throughout the lesson.

I wonder how often students are not seen for who they really are and are instead perceived as disengaged and unmotivated. Literacy barriers that stem from learning disabilities or lack of fluency lead to frustration and, sometimes, negative behaviors in the classroom. As educators, it is our job to find ways to highlight students’ strengths, regardless of these barriers. Tools such as Microsoft Translator make it that much easier for students to understand ideas and express their own, thus alleviating frustrations in the classroom.

By using Skype and Microsoft Translator together, a whole new layer of James was revealed, and though his journey to English fluency continues, his progress has been remarkable. With this new tool, James is more capable to take on the English language than ever before. As we head into a new school year, I encourage other educators to take risks and try innovative techniques, tools and approaches. Microsoft Translator is just one of many incredible learning tools available to educators and students. Time and again, I have witnessed that while integrating new technologies may be an adjustment at first, their effect on student learning will positively impact students’ confidence and ensure their success in the classroom and beyond.

For more information on Microsoft Education tools for the classroom, visit the Microsoft Educator Community at https://education.microsoft.com.