A software-based program is proving to be an effective tool to teaching English literacy to students who speak no or limited English at Pleasantville Middle School.

The district began using the program, Imagine Learning, in the summer and within six months has seen significant progress in the students’ comprehension, said Renee Gensamer, supervisor of the language program.

“It teaches them in their native language, but then it weans them off, while they are getting support,” Gensamer said.

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Effie Jenkins-Smith, director of educational services in the school district, said the system had benefits when compared to the traditional teacher-focused method.

“They are not inhibited with trying to speak or learn (in front of a class). Or trying to simply read a book,” Jenkins-Smith said.

Instead, the students are able to build up their language skills and confidence with the help of the computer program, paired with teacher interaction.

Since there are multiple students in a classroom, speaking a variety of languages, it eases the process of communication and allows a different classroom environment.

Based on the availability of computers, students will take turns being on the computer and using the program, while the remainder will be involved in other traditional learning activities with the teacher, Gensamer said.

The progress seen by the use of the computer system is greater comprehension.

Traditional methods “only gave us the phonics,” Gensamer said. “So the kids were pronouncing everything beautifully, but yet they had no idea what they were saying. So this one doesn’t do just phonics but it has comprehension, writing and a reading part.”

Heather Hay, a representative for Imagine Learning, said the program assesses the students in the beginning, and can determine which areas need improvement.

The computer provides an avenue of teaching that makes it easier to give hints to students who need it, via animated characters or graphics, and allowing those who don’t need it to progress at a different rate, Hay said.

Some school districts, especially those with a large group of speakers in one language, have implemented a bilingual system to teach the students in their native languages alongside learning English. The computer system works in the same way, except it allows individual focus for each student’s strengths and weaknesses, Hay said.

“It is not meant to replace the teacher,” she added. Many teachers are afraid such programs will eliminate the need for their position, but Hay said it is the partnership between the software’s guidance and teacher interaction that works.

“Those in Pleasantville understand. The teachers who use the program are coaching other teachers, administrators are tracking the data, and the students are asked for feedback as well,” Hay said.

The software program currently offers 14 languages, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hmong, Japanese, Korean, French, Tagalog and Marshallese, Hay said.

The languages have been selected based on the needs of the school districts, and more will be added as they are needed, she said.

Su Praetor, one of Imagine Learning’s co-founders of the program and executive chairman, said a group of former teachers began the company in 2004.

The company had already established itself with an early reading program that was successful, she said.

“In 2002, many members talked about the population we were not serving, which was the English learners,” Praetor said.

While it is too early to analyze the data, there is a significant improvement based on what the teachers are seeing, Gensamer said.

She is looking into creating a newcomers program at the high school next year, but it is still in discussion with school officials.

The district has been invited by Imagine Learning for a presentation of the data, compared to the previous year’s proficiency test results, at the Techspo in Atlantic City on Jan. 30, Gensamer said.

So far, the program has only been used in Pleasantville and Ocean County, and the company is prevalent in New York, Hay said. They began on the West Coast and have had success there, she said, and are hoping to penetrate the East Coast as well.

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