6 Strategies for Supporting English-Language Learners Online

With COVID-19 forcing school systems to rapidly shift to distance and hybrid learning models, English-Language Learners (ELL) have found themselves at risk of falling even further behind. An estimated 9.5% of all public school students are English-Language Learners. That is more than 4.8 million kids, and the number is projected to rise to 25% by 2025, and to 40% in the following decade. While that number is not distributed evenly across all districts, there’s a good chance that any given school in the US will have a cohort of bilingual or ELL students. It’s important that schools and educators implement specific strategies to support these students during remote learning to ensure positive outcomes.

The following six strategies are designed to help schools and teachers implement a plan to support English-Language Learners for success in a virtual learning environment. 

Anticipate Student Needs

Anticipating the needs of your ELL students is one of the most powerful strategies to help ELL students succeed. Even if your academic institution already has ELL programs and services in place, it is important to place ourselves in our students’ shoes and think through how students might easily access or be made aware of those services. This is especially important given the uncertainty introduced by COVID-19.

When ELL classes are hosted in a distance learning format, access to these supplemental services becomes both more essential and more unpredictable. To facilitate ELL success, educators are encouraged to consider common social, emotional, and cultural roadblocks in order to offer solutions in an easy-to-process package. 

In other words, it’s vital that educators take a proactive and empathetic approach to ELL, especially when contact with students is limited to online interactions.

Make Your Virtual Classroom Welcoming

What will the student see when he or she joins the virtual classroom? How will it make them feel? It is always important to make sure educators have created a safe and welcoming environment for all students. We’ve all been taught the importance of first impressions—this is especially true and lasting for new English Language Learners. Before there is even an opportunity to speak to students, they are formulating an impression of the environment they’re in—these thoughts and feelings will leave an impression. Are educators creating a welcoming environment? Are they asking the right questions?  

Ideas on how to create a welcoming virtual classroom:

  • Pronounce students’ names correctly
  • Have materials available in their language
  • Prepare the class ahead of students’ arrival
  • Assign a peer to help the ELL (especially if the peer speaks their language)
  • Use a translator when possible
  • Welcome their culture into the classroom and lessons
  • Label classroom objects in both languages (the board, supplies, etc.)
  • Involve them, with their consent
  • Offer them one-on-one help whenever possible
  • Use instructional materials that incorporate their culture

Ensuring a warm and welcoming environment for English-Language Learners will go a long way towards making them feel comfortable and more open to learning.

Check In With Your Students

One of the benefits of remote learning is that it can make communication more convenient. Email, chat functions, video conferencing, and other virtual classroom tools help keep an open and direct line of communication with both parents and ELL students. Educators, administrators, and support staff should be checking in with ELL students and their families regularly.

Many successful ELL programs will require students to attend regularly scheduled workshops or study sessions. This is a great time to check in with students to see how they’re adapting to remote learning. Educators and tutors can also schedule regular check-in times with their students in order to establish a routine of meeting and discussing progress and challenges. Face-to-face meetings might have been standard practice in pre-COVID days, but there’s no reason why video conferencing can’t accomplish the same goals.

Use whatever shared screen time you have with students to ask those same check-in questions, so you can help ELL students navigate challenges that arise in remote learning environments. Share your screen to demonstrate how to access their resources and supply a video of the demonstration whenever possible. Navigating online tools can be very challenging for families; having a video demonstration can help bridge the language barrier. In addition, ELL students may have limited access to technology. Following up with phone calls, and helping to connect them with local community resources is a great way to offer additional support. 

Create Peer Support Groups

ELL classes play a vital role in a student’s social growth within a school setting. ELL students often report difficulty in forming bonds with educators or peer groups due to social and cultural challenges, in addition to language barriers. Ideally, ELL students can be placed within bilingual or multilingual peer groups in order to help facilitate social growth.

This same basic concept can still be implemented in virtual environments, usually quite successfully. Today’s students are quite accustomed to socializing online. Virtual learning pods can be composed of other ELL students, multilingual students, service administrators, educators, or a mixture of representatives from the student body. In most cases, ELL students can belong to several online groups, each addressing a different social, emotional or educational need.

For ELL students, having access to other bilingual or multilingual students who have been through their program will prove to be invaluable. Even in virtual ELL programs, pairing students for success can lead to better overall outcomes.

Focus on Vocabulary

In an in-person classroom, educators might have word walls set up to help students with everyday vocabulary. Research has shown that using word walls and similar practices help strengthen the link between concepts and content, improving learning outcomes.

In a remote setting, a word wall can be easy to overlook. After all, without a physical classroom, educators may not have a wall to adorn. That’s why it’s important to create virtual environments that express the same essential functions, acclimating ELL students to high-frequency words. Educators can share words on a Google doc, clipboard, or other virtual tools, or they can create a virtual background that functions as a word wall.

If the virtual environment cannot be altered, educators may want to spend additional time on vocabulary and assign additional tasks that perform the same functions. Educators may also wish to provide virtual handouts that reference support and lesson touchpoints. Indeed, providing students with printable vocabulary.

Develop a Translation and Interpretation Plan

While distance learning might be both essential and unavoidable, it’s important to acknowledge that ELL students will likely encounter heightened challenges in such an environment. Educators can avoid negative outcomes by making it easier for ELL students to access resources. 

In a virtual environment, that might mean having links to services and programs in an easy-to-reach place. It may also mean adopting learning platforms that have multilingual and translation capabilities or ensuring that key communications are translated. Educators should also consider how visual these resources are—do they offer clues and additional context to help ELL students learn? Schools may also wish to offer virtual office hours to families who need help interpreting assignments or school documents. This can be the start to building a successful community for ELL parents that can help bridge gaps in communication.

It is also highly effective to implement online instructional support through an online education company like iTutor, where students are paired with a state-certified teacher who is either ESL trained and/or a bilingual educator.

As virtual or hybrid classrooms become more common, it’s important that the needs of ELL students are represented and respected. The pandemic has certainly impacted the student body as a whole, but ELL students may be hit particularly hard. As a result, educators have an opportunity and a responsibility to improve the ELL learning experience as much as possible. With the right strategies, a remote classroom can become a successful and nourishing environment for English-Language Learners.

Looking for additional strategies to support ELL students? Download our white paper, Helping English-Language Learners Overcome Classroom Challenges.