March 30, 2020

6 Key Considerations for Supporting English Learners with Distance Learning

By Heather Skibbins

     We find ourselves in unprecedented times as the COVID 19 pandemic has shut down our schools for an indefinite amount of time. As educators, we are scrambling to adapt to what distance learning means and how to best serve our students. In the past few weeks, many teachers have been bombarded with thousands of brilliant ideas and links for how to support distance learning, but there is a huge void of resources geared towards helping teachers support their English Learners.

     At SEAL, our mission is for all English Learners in California to learn, thrive, and lead. During this moment, we need to ask the question, “What considerations for distance learning do teachers need to make in order to place English Learners at the forefront?” We hope this serves as a contribution to what will need to be an ever-growing conversation about how we serve our ELs in this crazy time.

     With the closure of schools, we have essentially withdrawn essential learning supports and exacerbated the challenge of equitable access to resources. Before we can dive into potential strategies or techniques, we need to ask ourselves: “What assumptions am I making about my students’ learning environment? Access to resources and technology? Family support or other responsibilities at home during this time?” As we move into this new space of distance learning, we are primarily using three methods of delivery: 1) live online instruction by the teacher, 2) online material and classroom assignments that can be accessed individually, and 3) packets of activities, materials and reading. While most of the resources below make the assumption that students have access to technology, we have tried to include some ideas for those of you who are designing take-home packets for your families who don’t have access to a computer and internet. This is a critical moment in which we need to devote time and planning to how we are going to scaffold learning to support ALL our students. We face a very real possibility that the next few months of learning will further stratify our educational system.

     With that question of equity at the heart, we move into asking ourselves, “What does research tell us about teaching ELs and how can we use this information in distance learning?”

6 key research foundations for ELs

What does this mean for distance learning?

1.  An explicit focus on complex, precise, rich and academic language is needed.  This involves strategic choice of key vocabulary to teach, strategies for teaching vocabulary, selecting books and modeling the use of complex, precise and wonderful language in both the social and the academic realms.

Learning new vocabulary is critical for our English Learners. Developing rich, powerful and precise language can still happen in a distance learning model.

Making it happen:

  • Select vocabulary you want students to learn (content and tier II).
  • Teach language function words and phrases (describe, contrast, caused by, characteristic, etc.) or other language that they need in order to process and discuss the content.
  • Incorporate technology, images, videos, and total physical response to teach new vocabulary.
  • Create intentional Think Pair Share prompts or writing prompts that push students to use the new vocabulary.
  • Pre-teach vocabulary to ELs to support their comprehension and ability to access the content during lessons.

2.  An emphasis on oral language is an essential element of an effective language and literacy development program.  Children must be talking and actively producing language.

Getting our English Learners to engage in oral language is something we need to get creative about in the distance learning space.

Making it happen:

  • Emphasize oral language even in virtual spaces.
  • Conjure up your inner Mr. Rogers during videotaped read alouds: model thinking aloud, ask comprehension questions, leave time for them to think, and then respond (even if no one is there to hear their answers).  
  • Practice academic vocabulary and fluency with Chants and songs. If students don’t have an online option, send home chant and song booklets, and encourage students to practice with their families.
  • Incorporate technology to break students into smaller groups to discuss. If you need help learning how to create these on Zoom follow this link.

3.  Language develops most powerfully when it is in the context of building knowledge about something and interacting with the world.  Everything that happens in a school day is an opportunity for language development. Language development needs to occur throughout the curriculum.

For our English Learners, thematic instruction is particularly effective because we are building knowledge and vocabulary around a topic and providing them with multiple opportunities to practice. 

Making it happen:

  • Teach thematically. Students engage more deeply when they can become “experts” in a particular topic.
  • Curate multilingual thematic video collections and articles in Google classroom.
  • Align your language arts assignments to your theme. Intentionally select reading or articles that build on the social studies or science theme you are immersing them in.

4.  English Learners require specific, specially designed instruction, and support in order to access, comprehend and participate effectively in school.  Teachers need to differentiate by English proficiency level.

Students need concrete strategies to support them in accessing and processing content as well as differentiated small group additional support.

Making it happen:

  • Scaffold learning with graphic organizers.
  • Provide differentiated sentence frames to support them in constructing increasingly complex sentences. 
  • Use visuals and videos to deepen their learning and support them with academic language and concepts. 
  • Provide ELs with some additional, small group support. This virtual Designated ELD could be used to frontload students with vocabulary or concepts, or to respond to their specific needs in tackling distance learning tasks.
  • Consider using some breakout groups to create heterogeneous groups in which you can spend more of your virtual time supporting EL students with additional supports and scaffolds.
  • Teach older students how to use the chat box. It can be a way to elevate voices and ideas from students who may not feel comfortable raising their hand and sharing orally; it can also serve as a formative assessment in terms of what our students are understanding and are able to produce in writing.

5.  Development of the home language in addition to English is critical because it contributes to growth in both English and the child’s home language – and accrues life-long benefits to the child.

Distance learning can provide us with a unique opportunity to deepen and capitalize on students’ use of their home language. Taking the extra time to find that link for a book or video related to the learning in your student’s home languages can make a huge difference.

Making it happen:

  • Bilingual and Dual Language teachers can connect to numerous websites, Facebook groups, and lists of resources to support bilingual instruction.
  • Provide all EL students and families with resources for learning and literacy in their home languages.
  • Design culturally responsive lessons.

6. Strong relationships between home and school are a cornerstone of powerful education for English Learner children.

Students’ learning is strengthened when teachers engage families. We need to help families find simple, meaningful ways to connect to their children’s academic learning and support their social-emotional health.

Making it happen:

  • Provide families with multilingual prompts for conversations they can have with their children about what they are learning.
  • Create open-ended assignments where children can express what they are experiencing during this challenging time (orally and/or in writing).
  • Create forums of communication with families so you can get feedback on what is working or not working for them and their children. We are all learning new skills and constructive feedback from families can help us grow and better serve them. 
  • Use google translate to ensure that all assignments, invitations to Google Classroom or Zoom meeting, and other at-home learning instructions are comprehensible.
  • Remind families that one of the most important things they can do to support their children’s academic learning is to engage them in conversations in their home language.

     In addition to these 6 considerations, we know that children learn in and through relationships and that personal connection is essential. For many of us, children and adults, the isolation and social distance is the most challenging part of this moment. We need to be thoughtful and intentional about how we create space for connecting, making sure to give time for our students to check-in or share about their lives before we launch into the academic content. Finally, the economic impacts of this shutdown are causing great distress to many of our families, making it more important than ever to have social-emotional learning spaces, personal connection, opportunities to ask questions about what is happening, and a semblance of continuity and community. This may mean that we also use this time to teach about what is happening with COVID 19, to learn what “pandemic” means, how to measure 6 feet, or new chants or songs for handwashing.

     We are all working so hard every day to keep the learning going as we “shelter in place” and it can often feel like an insurmountable challenge, but we need to move forward one small step at a time. My hope is that this document can serve as a support in making sure that our English Learners don’t become an afterthought or an educational casualty of this moment in history. As a state, we have made so many strides in these last few years to elevate and prioritize this essential and ever-growing part of our student population. My hope and plea is that we take this moment to look at our lesson plans, virtual learning experiences, and work packets through the eyes of our English Learners and their families and make our best attempt to meet their learning needs. We are holding you and your students and families in our hearts as we move forward in this challenging moment.

Heather Skibbins

Heather is a SEAL program manager and bilingual education lead. Prior to joining SEAL, she worked as a bilingual educator in the Bay Area for 15 years. In addition to supporting SEAL districts, Heather presents regularly at conferences about English Learner development instruction and best practices in dual language classrooms. She is passionate about helping districts, teachers and families create and sustain bilingual programs that enact the research and best practices for dual language education. Heather majored in Community Studies and graduated with a BA from UC Santa Cruz.