Using Technology to Break Down Language Barriers in the Classroom

Ich weiß es nicht?

¿No sé?

Я не знаю?


Teachers have heard the phrase “I don’t know?” in almost every language.

Still, they take on a different meaning when they come from a student really struggling to learn English.  We see the frustration in their eyes when our English learners can’t communicate with peers and participate fully in class.

Though English is the dominant language in this country, teachers across the globe experience this same challenge. This became clear to me recently while attending an international educator summit in Budapest, hosted by Microsoft. There I saw firsthand the universal difficulty teachers face helping students who are new to their country acquire a second language. We all had stories of the energetic girl who has moved from her native country, where she once displayed confidence and a love of learning, but who now feels like a stranger. Whether she has moved to Bangkok or Burbank, her teachers see her daily struggle just to get by without looking, saying, or doing something “weird.”

Teachers I spoke to acknowledged that when a student is unable to communicate at school, her confidence as a learner dries up.  We try everything we know to engage all students at school, but sometimes we don’t have the resources we need.

Fortunately, at the Budapest summit we learned about new tools emerging to help break down language barriers. The tool that really had us talking was the OneNote Class Notebooks, which we used to solve a team problem. Here’s what happened.

At the summit, participants were arranged into teams, and each team was given the assignment to “find a hack.” A hack, we were told, is an innovative possible solution to a common classroom problem—one that can be universally implemented.” Our goal was to find a solution for breaking down language barriers in our classrooms. This was a real world problem, too. We educators at the summit represented 73 nations, with very few speaking English as their first language.  We truly needed to find a way communicate quickly and clearly to solve our problem and to learn from one another.

Using OneNote Class Notebook, we were able to create an environment where work from students speaking languages other than our own could be assigned, collected and evaluated.  Using the embedded translation tool, students could click on words, phrases, they did not know, and instantly it would be translated. It was such a relief to discover such a powerful tool that can serve all students, but that is but especially helpful for students learning the dominant language of the culture. As teachers, excited with ways to connect with our students by embedding videos, word docs, excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slideshows, even lecture notes that students can translate by using the embedded OneNote tool.  Now students can share works with classmates and their teachers in their native language, and we can utilize the translation tool to understand them.

Of courses, OneNote won’t solve all of the challenges of English learners. (Currently there are over 50+ languages available in OneNote, with more being added in the future.) Still, it is gratifying to know that all over the globe, kids are kids. Students moving to a country where they don’t speak the native language will still struggle to acquire new language skills and to fit in. But it’s also great to know that there are tools we can use to help them.


Sarah Loomis

Sarah Loomis is technology coach at a Department of Defense school in Germany. She is the Department of Defense’s 2015 Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).

© 2017 NNSTOY, All Rights Reserved
Website by David Taylor Design | NJ Website Design Company