Teaching English to Digital Natives: Common Computer Concerns for ELLs

Those of us who remember computers being a novelty in the classroom probably also remember being told how the new generation of students are “digital natives.” The assumption is that children who grow up surrounded by computers see nothing strange about using one for work or play, and would passively become experts with this technology. In practice, though, I’ve seen many students struggle to find specific information, evaluate the credibility of a webpage, or write comprehensible forum posts. Unless the teacher is aware of these deficits, those students will struggle with technology-related assignments.

And there’s more to consider with ELL students. There’s no easy answer for how available technology is in other parts of the world. Recently resettled refugees may not have seen a computer in a long time, while other children may be from a country that provides free high-speed Internet to all of its citizens. That’s a wide range of possibilities for your students to fall into, so it’s important to consider digital literacy as a complement to the other domains of literacy when helping your students prepare for a mainstream environment.

Here are some techniques I found to be effective to find out how well students can use computers for their own needs in a secondary setting:

1. Tech Support

Technology has its own host of problems, and it’s more realistic than pessimistic to say your students will encounter some of them. Given their concerns about communication, though, they may be hesitant to talk to a native speaker or not have understood the instructions during their orientations.

It helps to do some activities based around technology issues so students can describe their problems, and you can take this opportunity to point out the difference between hardware issues like a broken screen and software issues such as the computer freezing up, which can make for a visual/kinetic activity if you have students match the words with the items. One thing you definitely don’t want to skip is the password recovery process, because at least a few students in every group will have a hard time remembering theirs.

2. Find the Facts

Students may be able to find games, songs, and other fun things with a few searches, but unless they practice finding academic information, they won’t be good at it. This is where a web-quest or scavenger hunt can give you an idea of how well students can use the Internet for background information, or connect with experts and other information-seekers (Zakhareuski, 2016). You may want to have students find something related to their own interests, such as sports or music or food, to make it more interesting for them (Lee, 2000).

In practice, the big problem I find is helping students differentiate valid and authoritative information from the stuff that would be quickly removed from Wikipedia. So when designing these sorts of activities, take some time to go over how to assess the domain name (going over the .com, .gov., .edu and other suffixes gives a good clue) , where the information comes from (is it the official site for a page or person? Are their facts connected to a source?) and how students can note where their information comes from.

3. The Social Aspect

Discussion boards and other forums are becoming more common in online education, but writing for a large group is always daunting for English language learners, even if their classmates are at close to the same level. A strong rubric detailing what you expect in a response in terms of length and subject matter as well as what you want to see in replies will provide a scaffold for the writing, and I personally try to be encouraging with my feedback when addressing mistakes in the early stages of such a project. After the more shy students see their peers succeed, they may be more willing to participate.

So, although available technology will vary from place to place, as I’ve taught in everything from a cyber environment to a community center with a whiteboard, empowering students to effectively use the Internet can go a long way toward improving their language development and academic careers. Even students who are accustomed to computers from their home countries can benefit from learning about how we implement web searches and technology-assisted research in our education systems.


Lee, K. (2000). Energizing the ESL/EFL classroom through Internet activities. The Internet TESL Journal, VI(4).

Zakhareuski, A. (2016). What you can do with the Internet: 6 creative online ESL activities. Retrieved from http://busyteacher.org/5728-what-you-can-do-with-the-internet-6-creative.html.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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2 Responses to Teaching English to Digital Natives: Common Computer Concerns for ELLs

  1. Jan McClellan says:

    I’m concerned about filters for content on the devices working for the languages represented in my district. Are web filters universal for languages or are the filters specific to English?

    • Nathan Hall Nathan Hall says:

      They depend on who is setting up the computer. It helps for teachers to do a dry run of the relevant sites before doing a web quest or allowing for multiple options when setting up a scavenger hunt. That being said, if you have 20-30 different computers, at least a few students will run into filter problems you weren’t aware of before starting the lesson, so be ready to explain and acccommodate.

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