Ensuring Academic Success for English Language Learners in Higher Education Through Use of Technology

Universities and Colleges

Author: Dr. Jessica Bogunovich - Contact: jessica.bogunovich@phoenix.edu
Published: 2017/02/18 - Updated: 2023/09/17
Publication Type: Paper / Essay
Contents: Summary - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: Paper outlines tips, tools, and suggestions that could benefit English language students in the higher education online environment including communication, comprehension, and vocabulary.



The number of English language learners (ELL) in online higher education has significantly increased in recent years. Ensuring academic success for these students in higher education has been challenging. ELL students not only come from different cultures and backgrounds, but have to face language barriers. ELL students struggle the most with adjusting to the online environment in addition to communication, comprehension, and vocabulary. This paper outlines tips, tools, and suggestions that could benefit ELL students in these areas.

Main Digest

The premise of the research is that the use of tools such as technology, applications/apps, smartphones, and software instructors can help bridge the gap for English language learners and hopefully see higher retention and graduation rates. The research includes how these tools can help increase ELLs academic success and skill level. It will also discuss the challenges higher education institutions have encountered when attempting to implement software in the classroom, such as cost. A variety of low to no cost solutions to this challenge are the use of Skype, dictionary.com, and clear speech in hopes of creating a coordinated interdisciplinary methodology that will assist ELL students both at home and in the classroom.


Research supports that English language learners (ELLs) are the most rapidly growing groups in in higher education in the United States (Bifuh-Ambe, 2011). According to Harrison and Shi (2016), there have been very few studies performed focusing on the academic experiences of ELLs in higher education. The success of an ELL student at the higher education level depends heavily on his or her target language proficiency (Bifuh-Ambe, 2011). Therefore, ELLs must be able to execute different learning and cognitive strategies, but there are few resources, aside from writing centers, that are available at this level of education to meet the needs of these learners (Harrison & Shi, 2016). ELLs need equitable access to the "curricula taught by qualified teachers using appropriate instructional resources and methods that match students' language and grade level" (Harrison & Shi, 2016, p. 417). There are limited schools in the higher education realm that can afford or are willing to provide this necessary support. This paper aims to identify specific technology tools and resources that can be utilized to support the learning of ELLs in the higher education classroom.


Teaching requires a different approach when educating students in the modern classroom, as today's learners have been influenced by the world of technology from interactive video games to smartphones with Internet capabilities. Because of this expanding technology, students have become bored with the current teaching style in the classroom. As the student population ages, they have become accustomed to the traditional style of old learning activities including workbook activities and computer games (Rosen, 2010). The best way to solve complicated problems is with the simplest solutions. The shortest path between two points is a straight line. Technology helps us implement this type of simplicity.

Recently, some educational institutions have increased the use of technology in language education through multimedia learning, online learning, web-based learning, computer-mediated communication, and technology-enhanced language learning. Hiradhar, (2013) administered a technology-enabled language learning program and studied the effectiveness and usefulness of this technology to enhance ELL's writing skills. The findings of this study revealed that the use of technology-enriched language programs could help improve the writing skills of the ELL at the tertiary level.

Research agrees that ELLs struggle with several areas of academia. These include vocabulary development, pronunciation, grammar, academic writing, multi-sensory learning, and development of being and independent learner (Kurzweil Educational Systems, 2004). "Kurzweil 3000 offers English Language Learners a broad range of features that collectively address the specific needs identified by instructors working with this population at the post-secondary level" (Kurzweil Educational Systems, 2004, p. 4). Kurzweil 3000 provides students with an opportunity to interact with software in a way that improves their vocabulary, speech, and independence as a learner. Students can use the program to listen to and read any text, visually track printed words on the screen as these words are read aloud, create text notes, and listen to recorded notes (Kurzweil Educational Systems, 2004). Additionally, this software allows students to have their writing read aloud and use colored highlighters and visual prompts to identify information, and create audio files (Kurzweil Educational Systems, 2004).

Skype is a free conferencing tool permitting people to effectively communicate using voice and video. When using video conference tools such as Skype, students and instructors establish a positive instructional relationship, building trust, and helping ELLs become more comfortable with the process of learning (Chuang. 2013). Skype can be used with ELLs to demonstrate correct grammar and writing, the pronunciation of words, and to show students how to participate in various study skills, such as effective note-taking strategies.

CD-ROM storybooks are found to be able to facilitate vocabulary learning and reading comprehension (Balajthy, 1994; Discis Knowledge Research, 1990; Martin, 1992). Electronic dictionaries, another technology-enhanced language learning tool, have also shown beneficial effects on word retention (Al-Seghayek, 2001; Chun & Plass, 1996; Hulstin et al., 1996; Knight, 1994; Laufer & Hill, 2000). One illustration of a computer software application that is known by many is Rosetta Stone. As oppose to a word for word translation tool this software uses a complete emersion methodology to learning a new language. The use of Rosetta Stone is not simply memorizing words it is participating in an interactive lessons. These lessons use pictures/sounds in real life scenarios to teach ELL student's language.

Smartphone and tablet applications, or apps, can be valuable tools for promoting vocabulary development among adult learners of English as a second language and these tools can be successfully utilized in an online college classroom setting. According to Nisbet & Austin, (2013) using technology in teaching and learning ELLs has a number of benefits which includes, "opportunities for increased learner autonomy and student choices, transferability of skills to other areas of life (including work), increased student engagement/motivation, immediate, precise feed-back, and ease of tracking progress toward the individual's self-selected goals" (Nisbet & Austin, 2013, p. 2).

Smartphone and tablet apps are terrific tools for ELL students to use due to the little to no cost of applications, or apps, they can be used "on the go", and when engaged in learning tasks. Incorporating mobile devices is highly useful for both teaching and learning. Having tools readily available at all times is a great benefit to ELL students. Some of the most effective applications, or apps, to increase vocabulary contain dictionaries, thesauruses, translators, whiteboards, interactive quizzes, flashcards, and books (Nisbet & Austin, 2013).

Promoting the use of mobile apps to ELL students may enhance their performance in an online classroom setting. There are many apps to choose from, and several of these tools will be discussed and explored which includes; Dictionary.com, TheFreeDictionary, Google Translate, Translator with Speech, English LaunchPad, Clear Speech, Idioms, iTooch TOEFL, and Learn American English-Free Word Power.

Other technology applications that provide definitional information of unknown words include computer software with elements such as graphics, photos, animation, sound effects, music, live action videos, and written/verbal text (Palungtepin, 2005). An example of this is the iTranslate app on the iPhone which provides ELLs with a direct translation tool that assists with websites, everyday conversations, and text messages. The iTranslate app also, provides language keyboard extensions and integrates into social media apps. By copying and pasting a direct message the keyboard will automatically translate your message into your chosen language.


There does appear to be a gap existing regarding the use of online classroom learning tools in higher education for adult learners of the English language. Recent technological advances have created resources and tools to help enhance ELL vocabulary development and writing skills. The specific technology tools, resources, and applications identified and discussed may be introduced into an online learning classroom setting in higher education to benefit and support ELLs.


Al-Seghayek, K. (2001). The effect of multimedia annotation modes on L2 vocabulary acquisition: A comparative study. Language Learning & Technology, 5(1), 202- 232.

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Bifuh-Ambe, E. (2011). Postsecondary learning: Recognizing the needs of English language learners in mainstream university classroom. Multicultural Education, 13-19. Retrieved from EBSCOhost database.

Chuang, H. (2013). Does technology drive pedagogy? International Journal of Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, 1(2), 75-82.

Harrison, J., & Shi, H. (2016). English language learners in higher education: An exploratory conversation. Journal of International Students, 6(2), 415-430. Retrieved from ProQuest database.

Hiradhar, P. (2013). Enhancing ESL learners' writing through technology. 68 30-36.

Hulstin, J. H., Hollander, M., & Greidanus, T. (1996). Incidental vocabulary learning by advanced foreign language students: The influence of marginal glosses, dictionary use, and reoccurrence of unknown words. The Modern Language Journal, 80, 327-339.

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Palungtepin, M. (2005). The use of multiple media tools to facilitate preschool English learners' second language and literacy development.

Rosen, L. (2010). Rewired. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tellez, K.S. (2014). English language learners: how technology use and a community-based program assist students to transition into college level coursework, New Mexico State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 3663248.

Zhang, G. (2010). Technology uses in creating second language learning environments: When learners are creators, Michigan State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 3417670.


Dr. Jessica Bogunovich
University of Phoenix
1625 W. Fountainhead
Tempe, AZ 85282

Judith Drilling
University of Phoenix
1625 W. Fountainhead
Tempe, AZ 85282

Jasmine Rojas
University of Phoenix
1625 W. Fountainhead
Tempe, AZ 85282

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