Supporting English Language Learners’ Success as Remote Learners

Categories: Teaching
September 24, 2020

“In today’s educational climate, English Learners are expected to develop deep content knowledge, engage with complex texts, and interact with peers in sophisticated ways, all while developing proficiency in English.” –Fenner & Snyder, Unlocking English Learners’ Potential

Doing school online is challenging for all of us, teachers and learners alike. And yet it may be most difficult for English Language Learners (ELLs), who now comprise more than ten percent of America’s school-aged population, according to a 2017 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

There is so much we can each do to support English Language Learners across the continuum of their school experiences, but for now, here are two important instructional moves every educator can keep in mind as we plan for virtual instruction: 

  • Make content accessible
  • Increase language production

Making Content Accessible

Giving kids a foothold in the content makes the difference between starting and failing. We can make content more accessible in a variety of ways, including using visuals, providing diverse or altered texts, and building learners’ background knowledge. Initially, we might need to invest some time to plan for this accessibility, and yet the payoffs in terms of student engagement and achievement are well worthwhile

In the online environment, we can support greater comprehension of written content on screens by using predictable pictures or icons to represent the activity or tech tool we are inviting learners to use. For example, the same image of two people talking might be posted on every slide with discussion instructions, or an icon of a talk bubble can be used to indicate that we would like learners to respond in the chat area of our conference platform. Visual cues like these give learners greater access to academic instructions in the moment as well as scaffold their language acquisition.

We can also increase the accessibility of content by building learners’ background knowledge before launching into new concepts or readings. We might do so by modelling or acting out vocabulary, presenting visual representations of ideas, or offering introductory experiences matching words and images on a platform such as Jamboard before asking students to read, write or discuss new content independently.

To make texts more manageable, we can provide students with choices between a range of texts, including those with denser academic language alongside those with more illustrations or videos explaining content. A teacher can take a challenging text and alter the language by replacing complex terms and shortening sentences to make the reading more manageable without changing the message. Having several versions of the same text and allowing students to select their own challenge level affirms agency while also supporting success.

In these ways, we can build bridges between learners and content, which is what teaching is all about.

Increasing Language Production 

The more we practice, the more we improve – this is true for just about every sort of learning, including language learning. The more that English Language Learners read, write and speak, the more they develop knowledge of and confidence in the target language. As we plan every lesson every day, we can look to embed authentic opportunities for students to not just receive information but also produce their own ideas in English. 

If content delivery is our goal, we might provide choice and flexibility in how students access the content – whether through audio books, videos or written words. Alternately, when reading practice is our goal, we can ensure appropriate levels of access and challenge when, as described above, we provide levelled texts to learners. Knowing our priorities for each learning experience allows us to focus on appropriate targets for language use.

As you increase opportunities for learners to speak and write regularly, consider sequencing oral and written language production in a variety of ways to support success. Before asking English Language Learners to share their thinking aloud with peers, provide some independent time for them to gather their thoughts in writing or in their own minds. Similarly, students often appreciate the opportunity to rehearse their ideas aloud in small groups or with partners before being asked to share out to the entire class.  As they practice oral and written language, you might invite learners to engage in one of these sequences:

  • think, write, talk
  • draw, talk, write, talk
  • read, talk, write, talk
  • read, draw, talk

Or, create a sequence of your own. This may involve slowing from your usual pace of content coverage, and yet well worth the time: when learners practice producing academic language, they increase their ability to understand and converse effectively in English. 

 The transition to remote learning is challenging for all of us. There is so much more to do, remember and manage in this new territory. So, to support English Language Learners, keep it simple; ask yourself the same two questions each time you plan a lesson:

  • How am I making content accessible?
  • How am I increasing language production? 

This will keep your students engaged and productive as learners – both remotely and back in the classroom.


Ready to learn more about supporting English Language Learners and other culturally and linguistically diverse learners? Register now for our upcoming online course, Critical Practices in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education, opening October 12, 2020. This course meets the Colorado Department of Education’s 45-hour teacher re-licensure certification requirement.

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