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New Research Reveals Best Practices for Teaching ELL Students

Written By: Hatch Experts Team

Publish Date: Sep 30, 2015

An Interview with Dr. Catherine Miller, Early Childhood Researcher

Dr. Catherine Miller recently completed her doctorate research at the University of California at Berkeley where she explored ways digital technology can successfully support language interventions with English Language Learners (ELL) in pre-K. At Hatch we were excited to learn that our Hatch Multi-Touch Table with WePlaySmart® was her tool of choice for the study. We interviewed Dr. Miller about the results of her study as we wanted to find out more about her firsthand experience with the Hatch Multi-Touch Table. Check it out!


What inspired your interest in this research topic?
I've worked in education for about 20 years and one of the predominant issues that I have found both when working with teachers and as a teacher myself is the importance of accelerating the English language and literacy skills of ELL students as early as possible.


Why did you decide to use the Hatch Multi-Touch Table in your research? Why not tablets or computers?
There is a narrative involved with the WePlaySmart software that makes it a little like an eBook. Children are presented with a scenario that provides a lot of context for a theme, like tidal-pools, a forest, or outer space. As the children solve the problems posed by the different games, they also have opportunities to see and hear new vocabulary in context, just like a book. Once the children solved the set of problems, the "story" was over. I used the Multi-Touch Table as a tool to structure our small group interactions like a read aloud.


Children need to be encouraged to talk in early childhood, especially when they are English Language Learners. And I wanted to explore the ways a teacher can accomplish important language learning at a Multi-Touch Table by staying connected to the process. Social interaction and language modeling is easier with a table because you can easily join the children and participate as a member of the group.


Any surprises? What did you find out after using WePlaySmart that was different than what you expected when you first began the study?
One big surprise was the amount of language we generated during the small group sessions on the table, and how some of the students remembered vocabulary from these sessions up to seven weeks after the end of my study. The adult scaffolding of how to advance in the activity and how to talk with each other about what we were doing enhanced use of the table.


Another surprise was how eagerly students helped each other navigate the activities. A key element of the study design was getting kids to talk to each other. Children in the study were paired in high- and low-language teams. When playing teacher, students shifted from an aggressive to a collaborative stance. Where only a few moments before they were grabbing for their partner's baby orca, for example, they shifted to modeling how to move it and explaining patiently to "bring it to the mommy."


Theories show that another child modeling language can be just as effective as an adult. This peer-to-peer modeling has the additional benefit of allowing children to practice academic language in an authentic context, so 'expert others' were designed in to all actvities.


Even though I changed the basic function of the table from an independent play center to an adult-monitored read aloud tool, students displayed social emotional benefits of working together. They learned quickly and I could see their interactions evolve as they began sharing and talking. The effect on scaffolding peer-to-peer conversation on collaboration was a surprise for me, and not written into the study results, as my main focus was on language production.


What is the biggest benefit we will gain from your study?

  • ELL students can gain strong academic language skills with scaffolding in preschool with the routines and tools that we already have at hand.
  • Technology should be used as a tool for early learners to learn essential language skills for their transition into kindergarten.
  • Answers to some of the problems inherent in underserved populations.
  • Ideas for strategic use of technology in the classroom.


Tell us a story about an experience you had while working with a child during the study.
Angel, the student I worked with for the longest timeframe, surprised me one day when we were exploring at an image of a forest on the table before starting our game. I asked the children before we started what their favorite forest animals were. "Bunnybears," she said. I remarked "Bunnybears?" with surprise and, without a cue from me stating that I wanted to know more, she picked up from my verbal tone that I wanted to know more. That in itself was a big deal, because it's necessary to pick up on verbal cues before you can maintain a conversation. Then she replied, "Yes. Bunnybears. And cockroaches and bunnies." She had progressed from a child who did not talk at all in groups to having a conversation with me and inventing words. As it turns out, she was super creative and funny, and became quite talkative to both me and other children in our small group.


You recommend teacher interaction as a result of the study. What tips would you give teachers who plan to engage in similar interventions with ELL students?

  • Consider the Multi-Touch Table a monitored center if you want to support language development. Kids need a model to follow when learning classroom talk.
  • For the best results, the adult needs to know how to conduct a read aloud. Not just any adult will do, it has to be a skilled adult (parent or teacher) who knows how to encourage a child to speak. Review your read aloud protocols and have fun!
  • Table time can get competitive with the kids, especially if it means interaction time with an adult. Create a symbolic system for table use, like a set of badges or special set of clothes-pins for children to wear, that indicates when the center is "full."




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