Our country's English learners are among the millions of students currently trying to stay on track while at home. For these students in particular, making the most of distance learning is critical for their language development. Supporting English learners with distance learning presents unique opportunities to personalize instruction. Try the following strategies to support your English learners’ language growth remotely.
Distance learning is forcing teachers across the country to re-think what reading instruction looks like. Many teachers are concerned that their students won't have access to the whole-class texts that they were planning to read. But teachers can choose from alternative options that also build students’ skills.
- Change the book! Many books are available online through Epic books, the National Emergency Library, CommonLit, or Open Library. In addition, Audible is offering students many free books through the spring. Listening to a fluent reader while reading along in the text supports both ELs comprehension of the text and fluency development.
- Plan a nonfiction unit based on texts from a variety of online sources. Resources like Newsela, Tween Tribune, and Breaking News English make it easy to assign texts using students' individual reading levels, including by their Lexile level. For native Spanish speakers, Newsela offers texts in Spanish for students to read as well. Supporting students' development of their native language helps students' development of English.
- Create online literature circles based on student interest. Students can read a series of nonfiction texts on a theme or topic of their choice. The Notice, Wonder, Connect strategy can help students engage with nonfiction texts. Teachers can also group students by English language development level.
- Create synchronous reading opportunities with students. You can use live web video or record yourself reading to students with Screencastify or Loom. Provide a graphic organizer with sentence frames for ELs to complete while listening to a reading.
In the classroom, it often feels like there isn’t enough time to fully support English learners in developing their writing. In distance learning, teachers have the chance to take a deep-dive into supporting students' writing development.
Try the following:
- Provide authentic writing opportunities. Maybe the essay that you had planned now seems obsolete. Use distance learning as a chance for ELs to practice authentic writing, whether that is writing letters (or emails) to you, to their peers, or to family members. To support ELs, use exemplars, sentence frames, graphic organizers, and word banks to help students develop their writing.
- Give lots of online feedback on student writing. Using the comment feature on Google Documents, or the Google Chrome extension Orange Slice to embed a rubric, allows for students to get specific feedback that perhaps you didn't always have time to give during regular school. Pair ELs with students who speak the same native language to discuss their feedback with each other.
- Hold individual writing conferences with students. Whether you use Google Hangouts, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or just a plain old phone call, try using targeted feedback in a one-on-one conference to support their writing.
- Encourage students to track their own writing process. Using writing checklists or rubrics for self-assessment and revision can be a powerful tool for ELs to improve their writing.
One of the things classroom teachers miss the most is seeing--and hearing--their English learner students' unique thoughts. Listening and speaking in English is an essential practice for students to improve their language level.
Try these ideas to make discussions work remotely:
- Conduct live discussions with students on the platform of your choice. Display sentence frames and anchor charts just like you would in the classroom to support students' oral language by sharing your screen or holding up a mini-whiteboard.
- Hold asynchronous discussions through Flipgrid or Seesaw. On these tools, students can record videos of themselves and post it to a classroom discussion topic.
- Conduct "written discussions" through Verso, Kialo or the comment feature in Google Classroom. English learners benefit from this because they have the time to process their responses and produce their thinking in writing.
Additional Learning Supports
As in the classroom, English learners benefit from accommodations that meet their language needs. This is possible in distance learning as well!
- Make the learning visual. This might mean creating an online word-wall or a YouTube explanation of a concept, or sharing videos and images from other sites. Encourage ELs to use the closed captioning tools with online videos.
- Modify content to support language development. Not all students need to receive the same assignment. An English learner whose English language is still emerging may receive a worksheet with direct questions and sentence frames, whereas an English learner at a higher language level can receive more open-ended questions with fewer scaffolds. Consult the WIDA Can Do descriptors for more ideas.
- Be available for online office hours or one-on-one support. Students often yearn for quick answers to their questions and we can strive to create classroom-like settings where they can get their confusions clarified.
Although transitioning to distance learning has numerous challenges, hopefully it can also provide a window of opportunity to support our English learners. We can aim to shift our instruction to provide a personalized learning opportunity for our students, centered around both their interests and unique needs. And in doing so, we can attempt to make this challenging time a little more comforting for our kids.
Caitlin is a literacy specialist in Winooski, Vermont, where she works largely with refugee students. Previously, she worked in Boston and Juneau Public Schools as an ESOL, Special Education, and history teacher. Caitlin strives to be an anti-racist educator and has a passion for supporting all students to develop as engaged and active global citizens.