Kathy Rogers teaches at Louis Pizitz Middle School in Vestavia Hills, Ala. When a new seventh-grader joined her homeroom class last year, the veteran teacher faced a challenge: the student spoke only Spanish, but she didn’t. How could she make the student feel welcome in her classroom, but also help him build the English language skills he needed to be successful in school?
Rogers, who teaches German, turned to the popular language instruction app Duolingo, with its little green owl that guides users through lessons. According to Rogers, who uses Duolingo for Schools for homework assignments in her German class, the app works especially well for English Language Learners (ELLs) because it gives them a chance to practice the vocabulary and grammar they pick up throughout the day, in a private, risk-free environment.
“It’s an experience that they could connect with their day-to-day immersion experience with peers, and in classrooms and dealing with school work,” Rogers said. And for the student who joined her homeroom class, using the app to practice English had an added bonus: he still got to hang out with his classmates during the study hall.
“It doesn’t set you apart in a way that says you’re going to see the ELL teacher down the hall, or you’re getting pulled out of your peer group,” Rogers said. Over time, she noticed that the student became more confident with using English with teachers and classmates, and was eager to share his progress.
“I do think the apps are a useful tool—one tool,” said Jan Plass, a professor at New York University specializing in educational technology and co-director of its Games for Learning Institute. “And confidence is exactly the right word, because those learners will be experiencing the language all day long, and then they will focus on enhancing the vocabulary.”
According to Plass, another advantage of using apps is that they allow teachers to flip the classroom and give students more control over their learning, while the teacher guides them in how to take advantage of what an app has to offer.
Last year, Melissa Stagg, then a high school Spanish teacher at the Bronx Latin School in New York City, turned to Duolingo for Schools after other teaching strategies had failed to motivate her students. What started out as a last resort became her most successful and primary method of instruction: while students worked independently on their assignments, Stagg walked around the room, listening for the “ding!” sound the program makes when a student gets a question wrong. She would follow the “dings” to locate students who were struggling.
“I’ve tried to move my teaching to be less centered on me, and more on getting the students to help each other and interact with each other, and build their own learning community, with me as a facilitator,” Stagg said.
Over time, their learning—and her teaching—became more personalized. She was able to spend more time with students, one-on-one, reviewing difficult concepts as the app recycled questions the students had answered incorrectly. Students who grasped the material could move ahead. And then there were her ELLs.
In a Spanish class of 28 11th-graders, about half were ELLs with varying levels of English language skill. When a group of ELLs came to her and asked to start using Duolingo to practice English, Stagg was happy to support them: even though the students were in her class to study Spanish, they still needed English language proficiency to pass the state Spanish exam because the instructions, essay prompts and some of the questions are in English.
While those in Stagg’s class who used Duolingo to learn English did in fact score higher on the state Spanish exam than those who didn’t, it’s hard to tell how much the app helped improve their test scores. But Stagg was certain of one thing.
“The confidence, each day, was there, you could see it,” Stagg said. “And they’re not afraid to switch, and code switch, into English.”
Duolingo has 150 million users worldwide, about a quarter of them in the U.S. Designed to make language learning easily accessible, it’s available free for mobile and computer operating systems. About a year and a half ago, Duolingo launched another free app, Duolingo for Schools. This version, used by about 350,000 classrooms around the world, was designed based on feedback from teachers; it combines the content available in the regular Duolingo app with special features to make it easier for teachers to use the app in the classroom.
“We’ve visited hundreds and hundreds of schools across the U.S., Mexico and other countries as well,” said Kristine Michelsen-Correa, head of community at Duolingo. “We’re constantly asking for teacher input, and there are ideas that have been inspired by what we’ve seen in the classroom.”
Duolingo estimates that only a few thousand U.S. teachers use the Duolingo for Schools platform to teach English, but says that number might be low, given that 16 percent of Duolingo users in the U.S., overall, are using the “English for Spanish Speakers” app (1.12 million out of 7 million).