5 Look-fors for English Learner (EL) Engagement in Distance or Hybrid Learning

As many schools across the country transition from full distance learning to hybrid models of instruction, some of us at SupportEd have had the opportunity to observe instruction of English learners (ELs) and coach teachers to hone their skills. We are humbled by teachers’ creativity, flexibility, and intentionality in integrating technology into their instruction to ensure ELs access content and develop their academic language. While conducting observations and coaching teachers, we have sometimes noticed that some students were more engaged than others during virtual whole group instruction. We know varying degrees of student engagement also occur during in-person instruction, but we wanted to investigate EL student engagement further in distance learning or hybrid settings to raise awareness around this facet of instruction. Because teachers must keep so much in mind during instruction, we developed a new tool to guide observations and coaching in order to raise awareness about EL engagement during instruction. We prioritized five areas of EL engagement and turned them into look-fors that can be seen during instruction.

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Five Look-Fors to Support English Learner (EL) Engagement in Distance or Hybrid Learning

In this blog post, we share our five look-fors to support EL student engagement in distance or hybrid learning. For each look-for, we provide a rationale and practical examples of what it might look like in practice.

1. ELs have an opportunity to use all four language domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

English learner (EL) student video conference e-learning virtual learning with teacher and classmates on computer in living room at home. Homeschooling and distance learning, online, education and internetRationale: The rationale for this look-for is that ELs are more likely to be engaged and to amplify their language use when all four domains are integrated into instruction. We want to ensure they have multiple opportunities and modalities to use language. Example: An example of this look-for is ELs listening to and viewing a video of a teacher frontloading background knowledge on photosynthesis while ELs fill in a graphic organizer. Then they read a short text on that topic, and finally orally share their summaries of the text in a small group breakout room.

2. ELs have an opportunity to engage in pre-listening, during listening, and/or post-listening activities.

Rationale: It’s important to intentionally design activities that prepare ELs to actively listen to instruction, to engage with content, and to synthesize or apply what they have learned. In this way, ELs can gain practice using and internalizing vocabulary and language structures that the teacher focuses on. Example: Imagine you’re teaching a unit on carnivores and herbivores. Some examples of what you can do to engage younger ELs as a pre-listening activity include having them drag and drop images of animals who eat meat and those who eat plants to categorize them to assess prior knowledge and gear them up for the lesson. While they are listening to the lesson, students could give a thumbs up when they hear the word “dog” and wave at the teacher when they hear the word “bird.” In a post-listening activity, they can respond to a prompt and orally share about the animals by recording themselves while referring to sentence starters and responding to other students’ recordings.

3. For every three minutes of teacher-led instruction, provide ELs one minute of opportunities for interactivity.

Rationale: Although it may be a lofty goal, you can aim to keep the 3:1 rule in mind when planning and delivering instruction. For every 3 minutes of instruction, try to incorporate one minute of student interaction. Having students actively interact with the content will help keep them engaged as well as make the content more accessible for them. When you divide up the content this way, it reduces the amount of information ELs have to process at one time, making the content more linguistically accessible. Example: For example, when providing mathematics instruction on estimating object mass, a teacher can determine several points at which stopping direct instruction and having students interact with the content would be natural. The interaction could be as brief as students giving a thumbs up or thumbs down or responding to a poll about different objects’ mass. You could also structure a longer opportunity for student interaction in breakout rooms where they apply what they’ve learned to estimating different objects’ mass using sentence starters, visuals, and word banks as appropriate.

4. ELs have an opportunity to engage with whole-group content by tapping, typing, talking, and/or showing activities.

Asian business woman talking to her colleagues about plan in video conference. Multiethnic business team using computer for a online meeting in video call. Group of people smart working from home. Rationale: To unpack Look-for 3 a little further, in order to make EL engagement more likely, we need to think about how ELs are actively interacting with content during the 3:1 framework. Students can tap, type, and/or talk, and we also suggest they can show how they’re interacting with content. In this way, they have multiple entry points to engage with content and academic language. Example: There are several ways students could tap, type, talk, or show to engage with estimating object mass. They can tap to use their learning platform’s emoji to indicate if they think a mass is reasonable, type by writing their estimates of various objects in their chat, talk to discuss an estimate in a small group breakout, or show by writing their estimates on a whiteboard and holding it up to their camera. The teacher could share the students’ responses with the whole group by showing all the students’ responses.

5. Engagement activities are appropriately scaffolded for the ELs in the class.

Young man student study at home. He using laptop and learning online Rationale: While it’s important to follow the 3:1 rule and have students tap, type, talk, and/or show to engage with content, we also need to be intentional in scaffolding these modes of student interaction for ELs. Scaffolding instruction is key for ELs to be able to engage with content and develop their academic language. Going a little deeper, we also need to think about differentiating scaffolds we use in materials, how we instruct, and how we group students so we align our scaffolds to ELs’ proficiency levels. Example: In a high school social studies lesson on belief systems, students have the complex task of examining similarities and differences between several religions. Some examples of ways to scaffold activities to promote ELs’ engagement include providing three scaffolds to take notes: a graphic organizer, a word bank, and sentence stems so ELs complete the organizer in pairs while the teacher pauses instruction at various points throughout the lesson. ELs at a lower proficiency level can be provided a graphic organizer or guided notes that contain a word bank and sentence stems while ELs at a higher level of proficiency do not receive the word bank and sentence stems. We recognize that teachers have so much on their plates right now and that teaching and learning can be utterly exhausting for both teachers and students. We are hopeful that you can use our observation tool and incorporate some of these ideas to encourage ELs to stay engaged with instruction. Please let us know how you’re boosting your ELs’ engagement during instruction!

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To earn 1-3 professional development hours on scaffolding instruction, please see our on-demand course. Special thanks to Dr. Eleni Pappamihiel for her input on this tool. Continue the conversation with us on Twitter: @SupportEduc Additional resources:  2021 Online PD Offerings  |  Tools & Checklists  |  Webinar Replays
Diane Staehr Fenner