Digital Design Principles for English Language Learners

There is a growing population of students using digital tools to support their specific learning needs. One population of these students are the English language learners, ELLs.

Almost 5 million students were enrolled as English learners in US public elementary and secondary school during the 2013/14 school year—that’s almost 10% of the total student population. Opportunities for technology are used to meet the needs of personalization and help build a student’s agency. New products enter the market weekly—from apps for letter recognition to games that help students practice phonics. Many companies are responding to this growing population by adding ELL support to an existing product. Products for language learning vary greatly in content, pedagogy and user experience. It can be difficult as an educator to know what features to even look for in an ELL product.

Building on my years as a product and instructional designer, I’ve created a set of design principles for digital learning products for K-12 students with English as a second language.

Recently, I was honored to speak at the Ignite ELL Challenge kickoff with NewSchools Venture Fund. Thirteen companies were there to focus on making products that meet the critical student need areas of ELL.

What follows below is a set of design guides and principles, organized by topic, that will help designers, teachers, parents and product developers meet the needs of English language learners in their digital learning.

Teachers and parents can also use this to evaluate the products they are using to see if they are designed for the nuances of ELL.


  • ELL students need more time than other to process—listen closely and decode.
  • Create time to be reflective about their own learning—what works, what doesn’t.
  • Independent practice may require many revisions—allow students time to check and revise work.
  • Allow time for student to have the option to write, record, or present with a teacher when doing assessments.
  • Incorporate time for reading and re-reading as a practice everyone in class follows.
  • Create routines and rituals that establish expectations.


  • Students need meaningful practice with frequent breaks to reduce cognitive overload.
  • “I do, we do, you do” helps build independence.
  • Practice sessions work well when under 3 minutes.
  • Repetition can become tedious and students can zone out—use interactivity and visual feedback to keep attention during practice.
  • Incorporate movements, acting and sounds.
  • Incorporate home language in the practice to build connections faster:
    • How is the home language the same and how it is different from English?
    • Are there words in the home language that sound the same and mean the same thing in both languages?
    • Are there words in the home language and English that sound the same, but mean different things?


  • Instruction in multiple formats—video of a student doing the action, audio in multiple languages, on screen call outs and tool tips.
  • Unlimited time to replay audio and unlimited times to go back and redo things
  • Create an audio dictionary with sample sentences.
  • Include closed captioning, video pausing, but require viewing before proceeding with videos.
  • Use study guides that activate prior knowledge help give them areas to focus on.
  • A useful support is a global map of content—what they’ve covered and what’s coming up.
  • Depending on the content, consider adding sagittal and frontal videos of the mouth shape when saying a word.
  • Depending on content, a simulator for tongue, teeth and lips may help support learning.


  • Offer encouragement through multiple modalities—audio feedback, visual animations, teacher replay.
  • Encourage teachers to model growth mindset and grit—show, not tell.
  • Show improvement over time rather than completion or scores.
  • Offer extra credit that is self-directed.
  • Arm the teacher and parents with data to reward students who are making progress, in addition to the ability to target those falling behind.
  • Students get anxiety when reading in front of the class—make it fun by allowing them to add some “silly noise or sound effect” to reading aloud.


  • Show how to solve a problem through meta-cognition—“First, I think about…”
  • Visually map out on a screen where to look and what information is needed to solve the question.
  • Give hints that can be reused to solve other problems—not just the answer.
  • Use removal of scaffolds as a reward for doing well, don’t punish for having to use them.
  • Use consistent icons if you have types of scaffolds—I always look for the book icon to see a definition of the word.


  • Give frequent feedback—before, during, and after a problem.
  • When giving feedback after a question include—“How confident were you? Would you like to work more on this?”
  • Peer feedback can be really valuable for a student to experiment with (low risk).
  • For software providers, build a system that gives teachers actionable data to provide frequent feedback.
  • Create a community of practice to support teachers that want to share feedback on the system.
  • For writing feedback, have students identify why certain elements are errors.

As our world gets more empathetic and more inclusive (hopefully!), we will find new ways to leverage technology and digital tools to meet our students’ needs.

If you are interested in looking into more design thinking for ELLs, here are some useful links that helped inform this piece:


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, AbdillahAbi, post images courtesy of US Department of Education.

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