English Language Learners

Using Google Tools to Support Newcomer ELLs

Teachers can guide English language learners in using a variety of Google tools to make lessons more equitable and accessible.

April 2, 2024
Renata Angerami / iStock

English language learners (ELLs) in secondary grades are exposed to many texts, daily, across subjects. To learn the content, they need translations and scaffolds that help them understand the ideas in the texts. However, with the shortage of ESL teachers, ELLs are usually provided with language support only once or twice a day. One of the best things educators can do is to equip ELLs with strategies that help them independently comprehend any text across all subjects. Google is one underappreciated way to support English learners. 

ELL Comprehension Tasks

When ELLs encounter a text, they often grapple with limited English proficiency, a lack of vocabulary knowledge of key terms in the text, and/or a lack of background information about the topic. 

Before teaching ELLs reading strategies, it’s important to explain the challenges they might face so they can become aware of their learning needs and develop metacognition skills that will empower them to become independent learners and problem solvers. This also destigmatizes their learning process, emphasizing that reading comprehension is related not to innate intelligence but rather to a complex web of skills that are tied to language acquisition.

We can also point out that students might not fully comprehend a text even when it’s translated into their native language, if the words or information is new to them. With this understanding, we can share the following helpful strategies.

Translating Using Google

ELLs can translate the text into their first language using the Google Translate Chrome extension when reading digitally. This extension is pinned to the toolbar in Chrome. When clicked, it translates the whole page into the chosen language. 

If ELLs are reading print, they can translate using Google Lens. In my class, students use their phones to open Google Lens and capture the page they want translated. In seconds, Google Lens translates it. If your ELLs are not allowed to use phones, try to provide a digital copy of the text to ensure accessibility.

Building Background Information on The Topic

Building background information is one of the most crucial strategies that facilitate reading comprehension. To build background information about a topic, students can use Google Search to look up information about that topic. 

I recommend having students search for the topic in their native language, first. They should use the prompt “Background information on _____” in the search engine and include the name of the topic in the space provided. To make the learning experience more engaging, they can click the video icon in the tools tab to watch videos related to the topic. For instance, when my students were reading a text about Malala Yousafzai, they googled “Background information about Malala” in Arabic. After that, they clicked the video icon in the tools bar and chose a video to watch. They told me that the text was much more comprehensible after watching the video, as they now had a better idea of what it was about. 

Understanding Unfamiliar Keywords Using Google

Students can use Google Search to look up the meanings of unfamiliar keywords. When searching for the meanings of words, students should use the prompt “definition of _____”  to search words so they can get Google definitions, which are provided by the Oxford Dictionary

When teaching students this strategy, emphasize looking up only keywords because it will save them time rather than looking up all unfamiliar words. Explain that keywords are the most repeated words in a text; if these words are missing, readers will not be able to understand what the text is about.

Additionally, when students are looking up these keywords, encourage them to read Google’s first definition, because it is usually the most accurate and provides examples and synonyms of the word. 

After they look up the word, they can click the Google Translate extension icon to translate the page. To reinforce their understanding of the words, they can also click the Google Images tab, scroll through the images, and look at images that represent the word. However, it is important to note with students that sometimes Google does not have images of words because of their abstract nature. 

Integrating All Strategies

When ninth-through-12th-grade ELL students in a social studies class were exploring the text “Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush, and Mesopotamia,” they applied all three strategies by, first, using the Google Translate extension to translate the text into their first language (Arabic). After the student read in Arabic, one mentioned that he had never heard of Mesopotamia or the land of Kush, and since the whole text was about it, he felt that he needed some background information about these places. 

The student opened a Google search and used the prompt “background information about Kingdom of Kush.” He wrote this in Arabic so that he could obtain search results in Arabic. Then, he clicked the video tab and watched a video about it. 

The student noticed that the word “irrigation” was mentioned multiple times throughout the text. He searched, in Arabic, “definition of irrigation.” Then he read the definition in Arabic. After that, he clicked an image and saw images of what this word represented. Finally, he reread the whole text again with all the new knowledge that he had about the text.

Enhancing Comprehension

I’ve created a video sharing even more about my experience using these Google tools and strategies to support English learners. We practiced these strategies multiple times until students were able to use them independently. They felt much more confident in the classroom, especially about their content learning. Although these strategies require direct instruction and practice, once mastered, they become powerful tools for helping ELLs to comprehend any text.

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  • English Language Learners
  • Technology Integration
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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