Practical Strategies and Resources for EL Distance Learning

Note: This post is a guest blog written by Dr. Eugenia Krimmel. Dr. Krimmel is the founder of and an ESL Instructional Coach at Commonwealth Charter Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Countless schools across the country are temporarily closing their brick and mortar facilities to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 with many schools moving instruction online. As disruptive and unwieldy as that may be for teachers and students in general, confusion caused by the sudden switch may be compounded for English learners (ELs) and their families. While educators can find a plethora of articles and how-to guides about teaching K-12 content online, little is written on educating ELs in a distance learning environment. Those seeking a better understanding of K-12 ESL education are advised to look to cyber or virtual schools that have been grappling for many years with the realities of teaching content and language to students whose English skills are still developing.

My work as the ESL Instructional Coach in a fully online public cyber charter school based in Pennsylvania, Commonwealth Charter Academy, involves tackling this very challenge. As a 30-year veteran of ESL teaching, I couple sound Second Language Acquisition (SLA) principles with the capabilities cyber environments allow to help guide those I coach. Together, my partner teachers and I are creating innovative ways to forge effective pathways in this “new frontier of ESL”.

This blog post will share points to consider when beginning to teach ELs in a virtual setting, technology logistics, and strategies for effective distance learning of K-12 ELs.

1. Points to Consider When Beginning to Teach ELs in a Virtual Setting

When we look at students’ assets, we should begin by expanding our view beyond what we are required to do according to federal regulations to see more than the language a child uses to communicate, the level of English proficiency, and performance on state-approved assessments.

Broadening our perspectives and a deeper understanding of our students can greatly help us to build more successful programming. To do this, it’s critical to learn as much as we can about students’ and families’ personal, social, cultural, and life experiences and partner with them on behalf of their children’s academic and social-emotional development. This information is invaluable for building programming that capitalizes on students’ and families’ strengths and assets and welcoming and valuing their participation. Whether we do this in a school registration office, in a welcome center, while families are taking a tour of the school, or in a classroom or home visit, it’s critical to demonstrate a genuine interest in partnering with families and honoring, valuing, and acknowledging the many strengths that they share with us.

The following suggested questions are intended to bolster our efforts from the start:

  • School Policies. Check your school’s policies regarding copyright laws, electronic communications, and equitable practices for any cyber learning suggestions you present.
  • Trusted Translation and Interpretation. Send ELs and their families written or video how-to guides for such extensions or apps like Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, or translation within Microsoft’s Immersive Reader to name a few.
    • is an app that seamlessly translates messages back and forth in the preferred languages of the sender and receiver. Your school’s phone-based contract with an on-demand interpretation service may also serve you well in phone conversations with parents and students. Such services have to be pre-arranged by schools with companies like TransPerfect. These service providers are paid sites and have not endorsed this blog in any way.

Please note that any electronic transmissions can be subject to your state’s Right-to-Know law; therefore, I stress you check with your school or district’s policies before use. Here’s an example of Pennsylvania’s information.

2. Technology Suggestions

  • Internet Alternatives and Workarounds. This is one of the first thoughts that came to mind for me; what if a student does not have access to the internet or has no computer at home? Normally we would say go to the public library or community center where computers are free for public use, but amidst an outbreak, this is not advisable and many libraries are already closed. Three possible alternatives and/or workarounds include:
    • Phone capabilities: You could email and text students and/or families if they have phones. Because many of our ELs and their families do not yet read English, I advise using translated messages through various browser translation extensions mentioned previously.
    • Temporary free providers: Comcast and Spectrum recently announced they would provide free internet services due to COVID-19 school closures.
    • Paper packets: Paper handouts created and/or compiled by the teacher are better than nothing at all. You can have them available to all students without phones who come to pick up “grab and go” meals at the local school during the closure.
  • Tech Buddies. ELs may have used laptops in school or have their own, but they may not have had access to various programs and features needed for this new scenario. If their parents do not have computer experience or know technological English, you can assign ELs an online tech buddy to show them how to turn on the translation extension for example. This virtual tech buddy can be a same-language student or a tech savvy classmate.
  • Provide Keyboard Practice Links. Did you know keyboards are not all the same? Not only can you switch the settings within your laptop or device to a different language keyboard but keyboards themselves are sold with their language-specific arrangement of character keys and letters. Your EL may use an electronic device with a non-English keyboard at home. This may cause an EL to hesitate to chat online because they may type slowly. If you feel your EL needs practice to become a more fluent English key-board writer, you can send links to typing games such as TypingGames.Zone.
  • Clear and Frequent Communications. Send ELs notices and reminders through email, text, and social media if allowed. Announce virtual class times, assignment reminders, and links to important information such as how to contact your school’s Tech Support. Teachers are busy preparing, uploading, and managing the distance learning environment, so be sure to direct ELs to your school’s Tech Support. Also, see that your school’s Tech Support personnel have access to the on-demand translation and interpretation services to effectively assist non-native English-speaking students and families.
  • Platforms for Live Streaming. If you live stream lessons, you may wish to consider a live streaming platform, including but not limited to:

Note that zoom has a “translate recorded session transcripts” feature that helps connect the teacher’s English speaking with the written transcript in the student’s preferred language in “real time.” It follows along the spoken script by highlighting the phrases as the teacher speaks, which is a great way for ELs to learn academic language. Please check with your school or district to ensure any platform you use falls within their security guidelines.

Explore more: What is scaffolding instruction?  

3. Strategies for EL Distance Learning

I’ll next describe the two types of cyber learning environments–synchronous and asynchronous–and considerations for ELs.

Two Types of Cyber Learning Environments for ELs At-A-Glance

There are advantages and disadvantages to synchronous and asynchronous instruction. In a nutshell, asynchronous lacks the variations in human interaction that allow for language acquisition through negotiated meaning and social clues. Synchronous lacks the time for ELs to process receptive input and the rehearsal time needed to produce English as a second or new language. For these reasons, I recommend that a quality conversion to online EL instruction requires a balance of the two.

  • Balance of Synchronous and Asynchronous Instruction. Balanced cyber instruction for ELs utilizes all 4 domains in delivery of instruction in order to develop ELs’ SWRL – skills of Speaking, Writing, Reading, and Listening.

To that end, a program cannot be only asynchronous read-and-write tasks, nor is an effective ESL instructional program only live synchronous lessons with little opportunity to develop literacy skills. The balance of how much of each type rests in our understanding of SLA research. Beginner ELs need more comprehensible input through physical modeling and visuals. Total Physical Response (TPR) activities in live synchronous lessons as well as through asynchronous tasks provide this learning opportunity. While more advanced students can comprehend written content better, they still need oral language practice. I recommend that you plan your program and/or lessons according to your ELs’ proficiency levels:

A = Asynchronous | |  |  S = Synchronous

  • Model, Model, Model! Establish and model virtual classroom rules and expectations. If your instruction or assessments involve an asynchronous discussion task, for example, be sure to post a model of acceptable and unacceptable response. Simply writing “good idea” or “I agree” does not demonstrate the student’s ability to meet the task objective. Teachers also have to model class dialogue through sentence starters and frames like Talk Moves you can show on the screen share or white board in the virtual classroom. Flipgrid is an asynchronous platform that will benefit ELs because they can both listen to classmates’ and teachers’ oral responses as well as record their own spoken responses. Lesson Creation, Organization, and Collaboration Platforms.
  • Lesson Creation, Organization, and Collaboration Platforms. Teachers can provide visually engaging content instruction, practice, and assessments through a multitude of free and paid subscription platforms that allow teachers to create a full lesson or short presentation of mixed media to engage ELs in learning for enhanced comprehension. Cyber schools often use these web-based resources and platforms to curate, create, organize, and collaborate learning experiences:
    • Nearpod: a student engagement platform
    • Wakelet : a means to curate and organize instructional information
    • Padlet: an online collaboration tool
    • and many more
  • Learning Resources for ELs.If you have not explored these resources already for your ELs, now is a good time to become more familiar with the features and contents of each which will assist language and content learning. Some examples include:

Moving from a brick and mortar classroom to a distance learning environment can be a daunting task on “both sides of the desk.” With some planning with SLA principles in mind, teachers and ELs can grow and learn together in this new frontier of education for ELs.

Additional Resources

For a more comprehensive list of websites beneficial to EL instruction in both distance learning and traditional classroom environments, review the comprehensive list Deerfield Beach School District (FL) assembled. Very impressive!

Note: has newsletters and fact sheets for EL students and parents about the COVID-19 outbreak in English, Spanish, and Chinese.