Technology can raise barriers to learning English, ESL students and teachers say

One study says ‘learners cannot be 100% sure’ that technological aids will help with the language.

(The Globe, SLCC) George Ellington, a teacher of English as a Second Language at Salt Lake Community College, said online learning has given teachers more flexibility.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in spring 2020, it disrupted learning at Salt Lake Community College and forced educators to adapt to online learning and asynchronous courses.

George Ellington was ahead of the curve.

Ellington, who teaches English as a Second Language at SLCC, had already begun development of online courses. Now, SLCC offers six levels of ESL instruction at its Taylorsville Redwood, South City and West Valley campuses.

Ellington said he recalled a meeting with other SLCC departments, where one director said that many people “would be surprised how many courses are being offered” online. Ellington has taught at SLCC for 28 years, and spoke in positive terms about this growth in online learning, because it gives more flexibility to teachers.

The age range in ESL classes, Ellington said, is “between 17 and 71,” though the average age is between 20 and 30. Those in their 30s or older, he said, have less technological experience, and several students between 34 and 52 admitted to struggling with adapting to new technology.

It’s “not their fault they don’t know” everything about new technology, Ellington said.

Huda Alsakhi, a student from Iraq who identified herself as “older,” said she is “doing OK” with the classroom technology, though she acknowledged she is more comfortable “using older items” — such as planners and assignments on paper.

Elenora Bowen, one of Ellington’s students from Ukraine, said she felt comfortable in the class because “all the students are similar to me. We need to learn English. It is OK if I share with the group because all students are learning.”

At Salt Lake City’s Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, where ESL classes also are taught, Speartha Nyirazireze, a student from Rwanda, said her learning curve was steep.

“When I [first] came, for sure I did not even know how to turn [the] computer on,” she said. But, thanks to her teachers and classmates, she said, she learned how to navigate unfamiliar technologies.

Does technology help?

A 2021 study by Dr. Nehaya Ahlamed at the University of North Florida found that “the integration of information technology … has no effect in many cases, and in some instances its application can even have a negative effect.”

Ahlamed wrote that her study found “increased multimedia technology distracts students from the studied material. A student does not gain enough practice in the form of dialogic communication and the formulation of ideas.”

Furthermore, she wrote, “learners cannot be 100% sure that the offered material will help them in learning the language.” This is particularly true with translating devices, as Alhamed noted: “With translation apps such as Google Translate, one can translate any word to English, but, in most instances, where one needs to translate a whole paragraph, the translation is never 100% correct.”

Ryan Lavine, who teaches technology classes to ESL students at Horizonte, said “tech comes as second nature to me, but not for everyone.” Often, the difference comes from their upbringing and cultural environment, he said.

Lavine’s older ESL students, he said, often forgot their passwords — sometimes more than once in one class session.

Horizonte has started offering ESL classes at more times, Lavine said — because many students need the flexibility to fit classes into their work schedule.

Ellington said many of his older ESL students have children or grandchildren who help them navigate English and online courses. He advises those students, he said, to enroll in SLCC’s basic computer classes.

One program, in particular, is the SLCC Summer Bridge program, designed for those who are undocumented, disabled, minority, low-income or first-generation students. The 12-session course teaches about tools students can use, including new technology. Depending on need, the process could lead to the student getting their own laptop, Ellington said.

Ellington said SLCC’s international department could go further in helping students settle into college. Students, he said, would be encouraged by meeting people who have experienced the same challenges they are facing.

(Steve Speckman | SLCC) Luz Gamarra, academic advisor at Salt Lake Community College, has founded an ESL mentorship program called Amigos Mentores.

Passing wisdom along

Luz Gammara, academic advisor at SLCC, founded an ESL mentorship program called Amigos Mentores — where students who have gone through the ESL program and other courses can mentor newer students. The program’s principle is “learn, grow and share,” Gammara said, and the goal is to gain wisdom from others and pass it on to the next group of students.

Gammara started the program because of her own experience. Gammara, once a prosecutor in Peru, moved to the United States to find medical care for her young daughter.

Gammara didn’t know English, and a friend recommended she attend ESL classes at SLCC. Gammara learned her law degree didn’t transfer to the United States. She said she remembers someone telling her that “obtaining higher education was expensive and reserved for white people.”

Her academic adviser at SLCC told her to apply to a university anyway, using her old transcripts to earn credit. Eventually, she graduated with a master’s degree in social work — a field she chose because of the difficulties she experienced coming to a new country and learning a new language, she said.

This idea of passing lessons to the next group of students is common throughout the ESL program, Gammara said, adding that it’s how many students get help with both the language and technology barrier. Many of the younger students, Gammara said, help the older ones understand software like Canvas and other technical challenges, especially in the Amigos Mentores program.

Maria Ammar, associate dean of SLCC’s ESL program, said these legacy ESL mentors “know what students have gone through and give them guidance. Our students are a community [and] in the classroom our students are really willing to help each other.”

ESL scholarships are available, which should reduce the stress these students face. Gammara said SLCC could do more to promote the scholarships. She also said the ESL department should work more closely with the school’s advising department.

There is, Gammara said, “no excuse to not be successful in this country.”

Claudia Jahen wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.