Learning to speak, listen, read and write in a second language is a daunting task for anyone. My role as the Digital Literacy Coordinator at Briya Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., allows me to investigate new technologies that can help our adult students reach their goals of English proficiency. As a program for immigrant families in the United States, we also provide community resources to students from a wide range of nationalities, language backgrounds and literacy levels. We have been very excited to implement free accessibility tools from Microsoft that are having a positive effect in multiple areas of our program.
Briya is a unique program in that it serves families in a two-generation model. Our participants are parents and their young children. Parents drop off their children in an early-childhood classroom and then walk down the hall to their adult-education classroom. The adult-education classes focus on English for speakers of other languages, digital literacy and child development. I am a lead teacher for an adult-education class as well as a teacher trainer for education technology across the school’s four locations in the nation’s capital.
There are many new and exciting education technology tools out there for language learners, but many are not appropriate for our population, particularly our low-literacy students. In fact, these students often have a negative association with using computers altogether. They often get frustrated and quickly become disinterested in any activity involving technology.
I led a professional development session on the features and benefits of the Immersive Reader after attending a training at Microsoft’s Virginia office. One of our basic-level teachers, Elaine, took the initiative to bring the program into her basic-level class.
The students in this class are beginning English learners; some are also pre-literate in their first language. Many had not used a computer before coming to Briya and have minimal digital-literacy skills. All these circumstances in tandem create unique challenges for the instructor.
Elaine took a story the class had been working on and typed it up in OneNote. From there, she instructed students on how to access and practice reading the story using the Immersive Reader. All the students in the class loved using the program, particularly the low-literacy students. The Immersive Reader suddenly made the content very accessible to all students: they could listen and read in real-time, stop to check the definitions of words in their native language or with the picture dictionary, and even listen to and practice pronunciation of individual words.
Accessing the tools in the Immersive Reader was very intuitive for our students; most were able to complete these tasks autonomously with limited instruction. Some of these students had never used a computer in their lives until this year, so this was a tremendous accomplishment for them. Other features such as Line Focus, font size and background color also helped our students with focus and comprehension. The great thing about Immersive Reader is that since it is packed with so many features, it is easy to differentiate tasks for students based on their abilities. After the class, Elaine told me, “It was wonderful to see them smiling and feeling good instead of being frustrated while reading.”
I have been equally excited about the implementation of Microsoft’s Presentation Translator and the Translator app in our school. Our student services department provides crucial information to our students to help them be successful in the United States. This includes information about school choice, housing rights, managing finances and immigration policies and procedures. These are complex issues for anyone and even more challenging when trying to understand them in a foreign language.
We aim to provide translation services for any student who needs them, but hiring a professional translator is costly, and attempting to use Internet text translators during a live presentation is clunky at best. Microsoft’s Presentation Translator is a complete game-changer. With this tool, our presenters can be speaking in English (or any language, for that matter), and our students can get live, real-time translation directly onto their device or school tablet. Even better, the Presentation Translator employs speech-recognition machine learning. It can scan a PowerPoint presentation for specific vocabulary to improve the quality of the translations.
I piloted this technology when we had an immigration lawyer speak to our students about their rights and opportunities. We equipped our students with tablets connected to the presentation. They were in awe as they saw the presentation streaming over their tablet in their own language. Students took pictures of the screens when useful information was presented, and they were far more engaged than in the previous presentations. Most importantly, the translator tools provided a level playing field for every student in the class.
There are more features we have yet to explore, such as multilingual communication and real-time translation between participants and the presenter. These tools will be useful for our outreach programs, registration, staff meetings and more. The best part? All of these tools cost $0.
It is clear that Microsoft has put a lot of thought and effort into creating tools that can help people of all backgrounds, languages and abilities to be successful. I believe we have just scratched the surface of what these free tools can do for our population. I am excited to see what innovation Microsoft will bring next for our community.
Keep up with Jamey on Twitter at @Jamey_Sadownick.