“Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or the same way.” – George Evans
Spending a major part of my life surrounded by educators, I have witnessed the creativity, and resilience, of teachers who have had to work with very little (resources, supplies, support) with the goal of reaching every heart and mind in their classrooms. Teachers love what they do because they witness the ‘spark’ of understanding when a student who has struggled finally ‘gets it.’ Having taught in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, seeing children begin to talk with others using English always excited me. Not because they were simply speaking English but mostly because the confidence it took to try was encouraging. Ask me if I would have the same confidence to speak Filipino in the Philippines (having grown up in a Filipino-speaking household with Filipino-speaking extended family) and I will look at you with my lips zipped, shaking my head side to side.
Why am I saying all of this? Because our English Language Learners (ELLs) have additional hurdles to jump besides having to learn remotely. In a physical classroom, they struggle but often receive one-to-one and small group instruction depending on language level (sometimes with the support of a paraprofessional who speaks their L1), and are provided materials expressly designed for their language learning ability (like books that are visually heavy and text light). What can a teacher do to make sure that remote learning benefits their ELLs academically and motivates them to practice their English-speaking skills?
First and foremost, supporting your students’ social-emotional well-being is vital. Our ELLs are coming from different life experiences—some are in migrant families that move often or have arrived in the country as refugees. Not only will they need to maneuver through academics while learning a new language, but they will also have to do so remotely (assuming they have the resources to do so). To help ease the stress and anxiety not only for the students but also their families, set up conversations with each family, explaining how you will support them during the school year, and invite them to ask questions about assistance and resources. If possible, do so physically but following safety guidelines. Also encourage families to reach out when they have concerns or questions. Yes, this can be overwhelming. Yes, this may take lots of time. Seek out school and community resources that can help you manage (if either has not already provided this). Resources might include web-enabled devices, mobile hotspots for Internet access, materials translated to L1, and the help of a translator for family conversations.
Then, identify the ed tech tools available to help you meet instructional goals best. If your school has already chosen software or platforms, learn how they can be optimized for your ELLs. For example, if your school is using Microsoft Teams, learn how to use tools such as Immersive Reader, Microsoft Translator, and OneNote. When introducing these tools to your students, do so in parts and emphasise the usefulness of the tool to learn the academic content. For example, when reading text use Immersive Reader to read the text once, then practise reading the text independently. To show you their progress, you can set up a one-on-one video meeting so they can read to you or they can audio/video record themselves reading the text and send to you. In either case, immediate feedback is important (start with the positives!).
Additionally, the following research-based strategies have proven successful with ELLs in a remote learning situation:
- Create a weekly plan that gives your students and families a view of what’s ahead. In this way they can plan their week (especially helpful for families with more than one child and/or absence of a caregiver who can help with work). Include assignments, links to videos, schedule of virtual sessions, and your office hours.
- Set a structure that can be followed by the entire class, which is consistent and one your ELLs can do independently. For example:
- Watch the teacher video greeting for each day (can include a learning task, class news, or a read-aloud)
- Read two stories and comment on what was read (written, audio, video)
- Comment on the class discussion board/thread (“Question/Problem of the Week”)
- Write in daily journal about any learning done that day (successes, needs for improvement). Encourage audio and/or video journaling as ELLs become comfortable (confident) with English-speaking skills.
- Meet with small groups of students to better engage in discussions during virtual learning sessions. While some video conferencing applications can show up to 25 students on screen at once, this can get overwhelming for you and your students. With smaller groups, and leveled in some cases, students may feel more comfortable with asking and answering questions even with limited English-speaking skills.
- Speak slowly and clearly in recorded videos and during virtual sessions. Give your students enough time to process the information being shared and pause when asking questions. Those few seconds allow your ELLs to prepare a response, if required.
- Use language frames to help students converse and participate in discussions. Create a handout, as well as a shared doc in your LMS, of language frames for easy access and reference as needed. Encourage ELLs to use these frames in small group virtual sessions, as well as in break out groups during whole class virtual sessions. Examples: What do you see…? – I see…; Why do you believe that…? – I believe that…; I think ___ is interesting because …
- Record short instructional videos. With videos, students can pause, rewind, and re-watch any part. In the videos, use visuals and graphic organisers to support the learning. If needed, include words that are in the L1 of the ELLs in your class emphasising academic language (versus basic conversational language).
- Use non-verbal cues during a virtual session. In addition to using lots of visuals, non-verbal cues help make the content, and language, more accessible to your learners. For example, thumbs up/down to signal understanding, hand up to signal ‘slow down’, and hand to ear to signal ‘repeat’ or ‘speak louder’ during a lesson.
- Model expectations, both via virtual session and/or video but also as examples that can be used as reference later. For example, for a lesson on comparing two characters in a story, model using a Venn diagram. Start with two characters all are familiar with (ex. from a popular movie or comic book), then repeat with two characters the class chooses. Point out specific examples such as experiences and personality traits. Video/screen record these sessions so that students can review on their own.
- Use templates to help students complete what might be a complex task. Break the template into smaller parts, teaching each part and completing the model as you go. Remember, this does not need to be done in one session! Breaking down a task may take a few lessons and that’s just fine. The goal is for your ELL to access the content and feel confident about their learning progress so that they are able to do more independently.
These are just some things that you can do to support your ELLs. Teachers are beyond creative, and searching online for other ways to help your ELLs grow will produce pages of articles and resources. Just be careful to prioritise strategies that help students learn academic language (ex. using words such as add, divide, cells, solar, informative, etc.). They will need this language as they progress through grade levels and in preparation for standardised tests. And of course, incorporate activities that bring out your students’ personalities and motivate them to “show up” for their learning both asynchronously and synchronously (ex. activities similar to Taboo for practicing conversation and YouTube videos that include L1 support). Thinking beyond the classroom is a necessity at this point, but careful and thoughtful planning can change things for the better for your ELLs.