Empowering ELLs With Digital Stories

Expressing themselves clearly in English can be challenging for English language learners, but digital storytelling can enhance their communication skills and learning in a fun, relevant way.


Last year, I took a big risk by including blogging as part of the curriculum for my first-year college English course. Around half of my students were English language learners (ELLs), and I wasn’t sure that they would be comfortable with this medium. (Read about blogging in my ELL classroom here). I started to think of ways they could contribute to their blogs that did not necessarily require an overwhelming amount of writing. A conversation with our college’s librarian led me to digital storytelling. Students would still write, but by using another medium too, I aimed to keep them motivated and engaged in writing blogs.

What Is Digital Storytelling?

Digital storytelling is the concept of using digital media (photos, audio, video) to create a story. It’s a tool that can be used for a variety of communication purposes, from marketing and advertising to documentary videos. In the classroom, digital storytelling allows students to apply tools that are relevant to 21st-century learning and to extend their communication and interaction to another level.

Benefits of Digital Storytelling for ELLs

Digital storytelling has profound benefits for students’ communication, critical thinking, creative and writing skills. For ELLs, those are three particularly important areas to focus on since learning a new language adds a layer of difficulty to overcome.

  • Communication: For many ELLs, communicating an idea, a narrative or a story is the most difficult aspect of learning English. Digital storytelling allows students to communicate an experience or an idea—and the meaning and feelings behind it—in a short timeframe and to express themselves in ways they might not be able to while writing an essay or report. For example, a digital story can be three minutes long, but the tools used to tell it help convey a deeper meaning and builds a connection with the audience. Images, music, audio recordings and family photos are just a few of the possible tools.
  • Critical Thinking and Creativity: Often, ELLs get so caught up with learning and trying to speak and write English that critical thinking and creativity become lost in translation. The process of creating a digital story guides students to think about why an idea, an experience or a story is important to them. This allows students to practice analyzing their own narratives, which fosters reflection and critical thinking.

    In addition to critical thinking, students will be able to learn in a way that supports and encourages creativity. Many students, if asked, would tell me they’re not creative. However, students use their creativity throughout the process of developing digital stories, even when they’re using technical or other skills (e.g., digital media tools) that don’t conjure up “creativity” in their minds. 
  • Writing: Writing is a pretty daunting task for most ELLs, but I found that, after being introduced to digital storytelling, my students became more comfortable with sharing their thoughts and experiences. Digital stories allow them to express themselves with fewer words. Still, creating a digital story takes students through a process that is very similar to the writing process. Students have to brainstorm, plan, outline, draft, edit and share. If you use digital storytelling with your students, periodically remind students to make connections between the two processes. This will help familiarize them with the writing process and help them see that writing is a doable task.

Here is an eight-step digital storytelling process, as explained by educator and ed-tech expert Samantha Morra:

  1. Generate an idea and go from there. 
  2. Research to learn about the topic. 
  3. Write out a script. 
  4. Create a storyboard.
  5. Compile or create digital media (images, audio, video, etc.).
  6. Assemble all the parts into a digital story.
  7. Share with others.
  8. Reflect on the experience and give feedback.

Digital Storytelling and Classroom Culture

As a class, we went through the process of creating digital stories together, but students also worked independently. I thought it would be great for them to share with each other their final products. Many students were reluctant at first, so I only chose volunteers. But as they saw their peers’ work, many students changed their minds and shared their own stories.

Digital storytelling not only contributed to a safe environment for students to share their cultural experiences and personal stories, but it also created a classroom where students gained confidence. They realized that it’s valuable for all of us to be proud of who we are.

One Student’s Digital Story

Oleksii, an ELL student from Ukraine, had come to Canada a year before he attended my class. He was very self-conscious about writing and speaking in English and sought out extra help from me whenever he had the chance. When I introduced digital storytelling, he was very hesitant because of his accent—he even mentions it in the beginning of his video. However, after experimenting with digital storytelling, he saw it as an opportunity to share with his classmates a bit about Ukraine and his cultural background. After seeing his classmates’ reactions to his story, Oleksii beamed with pride: He made a powerful digital story that he can share with others.


How to Incorporate Digital Storytelling to Empower Student Voice

Digital Storytelling on Seneca College’s Sandbox

A Guide to Producing Student Digital Storytellers

Alrubail is a writer on education, teaching and learning. She is also the editor of Medium’s The Synapse publication on learning, teaching and education.


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