Using AI to Help Emergent Bilinguals Learn English

The Future Is Here: Combining Human and Artificial Intelligence to Help Emergent Bilinguals Learn English edWebinar recording screenshot

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Beginning in a new school, grade, or classroom can be a daunting prospect for any student. However, when English isn’t a student’s first language, the barrier to adaptation is especially challenging.

Providing equitable learning opportunities to all students is a core value of education in the United States, and now, technology like artificial intelligence (AI) can help educators level the playing field for emergent bilingual students so they can get off on the right foot in any learning environment.

In the edWebinar, “The Future Is Here: Combining Human and Artificial Intelligence to Help Emergent Bilinguals Learn English,” Maya Goodall, Senior Director of Emergent Bilingual Curriculum at Lexia Learning, explained how AI can support teachers and leverage bilingual students’ strengths by personalizing instruction and maximizing teacher efficiency so they can help learners move towards full fluency.

Emergent bilingual students are defined as learners who have skills in a native language, and at the same time, are learning new skills in a second language. These learners are more common in classrooms across the United States than many might think.

As of 2018, an average of 1 in 10 students were considered emergent bilingual—and that number is only rising. They speak over 400 languages and span across all 50 states, which means almost all teachers will have at least one bilingual student in their classrooms every year.

The cultural richness and diversity that emergent bilingual students bring to the classroom are worth celebrating. However, it can also present a challenge for teachers as they try to understand where students are at with their language comprehension and equip them with the right tools to stay on track.

It’s important to recognize that in addition to learning a new language, students must simultaneously learn content like history, math, and literature in their second language. To ensure emergent bilingual students have equal opportunities, Goodall proposed AI can assist teachers in two ways:

  1. To create powerful individualized learning pathways
  2. To provide data to teachers that makes their jobs easier

AI, when used effectively, helps teachers to free up their time and focus on doing what they do best—creating engaging curricula and developing instructional excellence. Artificial intelligence, defined as the ability of a computer to do tasks usually done by humans, supports teachers of emergent bilingual students by collecting the data to diagnose where the student is at in their journey to English fluency.

In order to use an AI platform to its full potential, teachers should pick a program that allows them to set learning objectives, then uses AI to build milestones and learning pathways for each student.

An effective platform will use both speech recognition and natural language processing to collect and provide data to teachers on student performance in an easily digestible format. This frees up teachers to stage interventions in real time. Instead of relying on once-a-year standardized test results to understand how much students comprehend, now, teachers can address gaps and celebrate progress continuously.

Though it sounds straightforward, many teachers balk at the idea of implementing yet another tool or at the idea of technology as complex as AI. Goodall and her team at Lexia Learning advocate that embedding a tool like this into the curriculum itself, instead of as an afterthought, is the most effective way to do it. They developed an algorithm as a guiding framework:

Artificial Intelligence + Speech Recognition + Human Intelligence + Data = Equitable Instruction

Goodall walked those watching the edWebinar through how an AI platform can be utilized in the classroom by using the Lexia® English Language Development program as an example. The program uses speech recognition as a tool for emergent bilingual students, with a special focus on helping students to practice speaking English.

Using adaptive learning paths, this technology assesses the learner’s English skills using an initial placement test and places students at their comprehension level. Speech-recognition technology captures student inputs as they learn, and then the natural language processing function measures whether students have mastered the language standards—especially in conversation. This data flows into a dashboard, which allows the teacher to see students’ progress and make instructional decisions accordingly.

When evaluating AI tools for English language learning, Goodall emphasized that speech recognition is a crucial capability and must-have in the classroom. This is because of the Interaction Hypothesis, which suggests that students learn better when interacting with content and when encouraged to formulate new ideas. Instead of just passively reading, practicing speaking moves students to action and encourages them to think creatively about how to build phrases.

Based on the program’s reaction to spoken phrases, learners can decide: was I effective in conveying my message? Using a natural-language-processing function, this information feeds into the data analysis. A great program will adjust learners’ pathways for specific grammatical mistakes, patterns, and words, meaning that both teachers and students are receiving feedback and personalized information in real time.

This feedback loop is crucial to language learning. As a result, Goodall recommends that any AI tool for emergent bilinguals must have a speech-recognition component. Additionally, she recommends the tool is built by a diverse team that understands the challenges of second-language learning.

All of these components make a great tool that teaches and supports students as they move towards full fluency in English. But most importantly, it frees up the teacher to apply their human intelligence to motivate students, understand who they are, and design lessons of interest to them. These “teacher-led lessons,” or where the teacher facilitates learning, provide invaluable opportunities for educators to get to know their students and motivate them in intangible ways beyond just instruction.

Key Takeaways:

  • If you use EdTech in your classroom, you are probably already using AI. Setting clear objectives and learning outcomes can help you be intentional about what you want AI to do for you, and accordingly, evaluate what the best tool for your classroom will be.
  • Well-designed AI tools help language learning become more human centered. AI helps students by giving them individualized pathways, and at the same time gives teachers back time to leverage their human intelligence in order to engage students based on their interests and capabilities.
  • AI is a great tool to teach English!

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, “The Future Is Here: Combining Human and Artificial Intelligence to Help Emergent Bilinguals Learn English,” sponsored by Lexia Learning.

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Helping ELL, ESL, and Bilingual Students Succeed is a free professional learning community that focuses on helping students to improve their learning and language ability.


Lexia® Learning, a Cambium® company, is one of the most impactful and highly respected reading-technology companies in the world. Founded over 35 years ago, Lexia’s research-proven programs help educators deliver personalized reading and language instruction for millions of K–12 students across the world.



Blog post by Laura Smulian, based on this edWebinar