Why Maker Learning Works for Our English Language Learners

Young makerWhen Marta arrived at our school, we had no idea that we had a future engineer in our midst. She was quiet and reserved in class, but it wasn’t because she didn’t have anything to contribute. It was because Marta’s first language wasn’t English. She and her family moved to the United States, and a few days later she was enrolled in school. But it wasn’t until her teacher took the class to visit the makerspace that Marta began to light up.

In the makerspace, Marta enjoyed sketching and building with a variety of materials. She began interacting with her peers and conveying her understanding to her teachers using some of the hands-on materials available in the space. She found a new sense of confidence within her new school.

There are many students like Marta who can benefit from maker learning. The enrollment of English language learners is rapidly growing, and it’s important to explore strategies that will support the development of both their language and social skills. Maker learning is one pathway that should be considered. The hands-on nature of making can bridge language barriers and provide all learners with an opportunity to contribute.

Why Is Making So Effective for English Language Learners?

Making may be the universal language. It can be a way that a noncommunicator can communicate and a way for the disengaged to engage in learning. Making also encourages the following:

Strengths-Based Learning

Involving English learners in making allows us to focus not on what the students cannot do, but on what they can do. While they may not be able to communicate verbally about the work they are doing, making gives them opportunities to demonstrate understanding in hands-on ways and engage with their peers.

When English language learners are given the freedom to choose tools and materials that pique their interest, they can then lead with their strengths. In turn, their confidence grows as they are successful in accomplishing tasks, breaking down language barriers, and finding common ground with their peers.

Confidence

When they are new to your school, English language learners need to feel welcomed and comfortable to learn and grow in an environment where others do not necessarily communicate as they do. A school library or classroom makerspace can be a place where they feel a sense of acceptance. It also provides a means for all learners to gather around the table and work collaboratively on a project. Maker learning offers opportunities for English learners to work on new language skills through conversations with their peers, helping them find their voice in the classroom space. 

Multisensory Experiences

With its multisensory approach, making also taps into all of the senses. This type of learning allows students to fill their need to connect, question, and create alongside their English-speaking peers.

This tactile approach means that students have a more immersive learning experience. English language learners are likely to respond well to activities with visual and kinesthetic challenges, paired with verbal and auditory learning. Because making infuses aspects of design, engineering, physics, math, art, and technology, there are opportunities for every type of learner to find a pathway that will meet their sensory preferences.

Need Ideas to Get Kids Making?

Your makerspace doesn’t need to have the latest high-tech tools to be effective. Download the Guide to Low-Tech Making for easy and effective activities that can help you launch a maker program that boosts critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration.

All students need opportunities to tackle complex problems, build creative thinking skills, and engage in meaningful collaboration. These will be more challenging for our students with language barriers. We can use aspects of maker learning to break down these barriers and build students’ confidence and understanding in the classroom when we attend to student strengths and provide a multisensory approach to learning. There are several maker strategies that can support all learners, but especially those whose first language isn’t English.

Maker Strategies to Try:

  • Pair ELL and non-ELL students together for classroom design challenges to increase cooperative dialogue. When students engage in engineering design work, verbal and nonverbal communication skills are built as students collaborate and solve problems together.
  • Engage students in video production where every student can find a role that they are comfortable with. From writing the content to sketching the storyboards to directing or starring in the video — every student can lead with their strengths in a project like this.
  • Connect language to literacy and have students design book covers or book trailers for the stories they are reading. Highlight the language or culture of your ELL students by including translations.
  • Incorporate opportunities for tinkering time for all students. This is a low-stakes way to provide learners with maker materials to explore while engaging in informal conversations in the makerspace. Discovering new ideas with Strawbees® or Ozobots® can be an exciting chance for students to engage with one another and expand their ideas while also developing peer connections.
  • Use or create videos to model maker learning strategies. While comprehending the language to instruct and build maker skills may be a challenge, English language learners can watch a video demonstration to better understand the content being delivered. For example, if your class is exploring with littleBits™, show a YouTube video to help students notice the way the pieces work together and how to successfully manipulate the materials.

When we offer maker learning as an option for English learners, we can increase student engagement in learning, develop expressive language skills, and foster reading ability. Offering hands-on learning in a makerspace allows English language learners to engage with their peers in creative and collaborative ways. This approach may help students get comfortable using their native language to problem-solve or complete assignments in the makerspace while also making connections to English.

While students may enter your classroom with limited English experience, you can design learning opportunities that will invite them in and allow them to tap into their personal strengths. Every learner deserves the chance to engage in maker learning. Our students who are just beginning their English language development can particularly benefit from learning in our classroom and library makerspaces.

Author

Dr. Jacie Maslyk

Dr. Jacie Maslyk

As a connected educator and established school and district leader, Dr. Jacie Maslyk has served as a teacher, coach, principal, curriculum director, and assistant superintendent. She has presented at the state, national, and international levels, including FETC, ILA, and NAESP. An invited keynote speaker, Dr. Maslyk also consults with school districts looking to implement innovative practices in their schools.

A published author, Dr. Maslyk has written articles on the maker movement, STEAM education, instructional technology, leadership, and literacy. In 2015, she received the Frank S. Manchester Award for excellence in journalism. She is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom, as well as a chapter in the upcoming EduMatch Publishing book on makerspaces. Dr. Maslyk is currently writing a book on unlocking creativity in the classroom.