Core-content teachers: You can provide good distance learning for English learners


By Margarita Calderón and Lisa Tartaglia

With schools moving to distance learning, teachers, students, parents, and administrators have had to step up to learn new skills. Secondary-level teachers of core-content classes who serve English learners (ELs) are panicking about how to help these students now. There’s no reason to panic; many supports that content-area teachers have been using to help ELs make steady progress in classes like math or English language arts also apply when teaching happens remotely. Allow us, as leaders involved with ExC-ELL (a program that helps teachers develop skills for instructing ELs), share some ideas.

The diverse range of needs of English learners makes teaching challenging for any teacher. Remote learning heightens the challenge. Some ELs have computers or tablets at home; others only cell phones. Some might not have access to any technology. Some have a place to study without interruptions and others share rooms; some are homeless. Many ELs work essential jobs, take care of siblings, worry about immigration issues—all reasons they might not sign on to remote lessons.

These realities necessitate lessons that are short, engaging, and offer topics ELs can explore that relate to their daily lives.

They also mean we should provide as much consistency as possible when teaching at a distance. If remote teaching perplexes teachers, imagine what remote learning is like for ELs or newcomers. Expecting them to use a new program with minimal support is unrealistic. Even if a new learning program or format is introduced, students should still have some access to programs they’ve used before, for comfort in learning until they figure out the new one. For instance, if they’ve used a specific literacy intervention program, they should still be able to use it at home.

Scaffolding Instruction, Especially for Texts

Reading nonfiction texts is ideal for ELs so that they can grow their language and content knowledge. English learners can read and discuss grade-level texts, even online, when core content teachers use strategies like those described below.

If your district is implementing a new self-paced program, help students by creating tutorial videos on how to use the program (in students’ home language if you have the ability to do so). These videos can walk students through the process of logging on, answering questions, and submitting answers. If there are tools such as highlighting or note-taking, create tutorials modeling the use of the tools. Two free programs (of many) to use for creating brief videos are Screencastify and EdPuzzle. If needed, during synchronous learning, share a screen with a student and walk the student through the process.

Have students download an assistive technology program that can provide text-reading assistance (Read&Write is a good one). Also, if there is a lengthy passage they need to read, consider chunking the text and teaching it in separate close-reading lessons. Such lessons can be done in small groups through programs like Google Meet or Zoom. During the lesson, pre-teach vocabulary and provide questioning and comprehension strategies. Students can respond verbally or write in the chat box.

If your district is using hyperdocs to instruct students, consider that when creating a hyperdoc for English learners, less is more. Too many features or links can be overwhelming and frustrating, and many parts may become missed. A number of EL teachers are not seeing their students engage with the hyperdocs they’ve create because of overload. Hyperdoc lessons should be accessible and provide scaffolds such as visuals, text reading assistance, and ease of use for submitting assignments.

Strategies for Integrating Language, Literacy, and Content

Secondary core-content teachers may find the following strategies helpful and easy to integrate into their lessons. You might make a video of yourself explaining these scaffolding activities, or virtually “gather” a group of ELs to go through them before presenting students a text.

  • Strengthen Academic Language

    Preteach vocabulary online. Break up the text and select key 5 or 6 words/phrases to preteach before ELs read or work on assignments from each text segment. Look for information-processing vocabulary that will facilitate comprehension of key concepts, words like in retrospect, controversial, or over the course of. Point out polysemous/multiple meaning words such as left (meaning direction, exited, left behind, or a political inclination) and related idioms (leftovers, out in left field, etc.).
  • Make a video tutorial for students on how to learn a word. For example, model using these steps to learn the word however.

    1. Say the word to yourself or a friend three times.
    2. Find a definition.
    Another word for however is “but”.
    3. Use the example in a sentence.
    I want to go outside; however, I know we have to stay indoors.
    4. Try out an appropriate frame to form a sentence.
    I want to ______; however, I _______.
    5. Use this word when you summarize the text.
  • Have ELs prepare a virtual toolbox to store their new vocabulary, the visuals you provide, favorite sayings, and other learning tools.
  • Ask students to keep a digital journal (using an app like Padlet) containing reflections on their work, things that make them feel safe and happy, or anything they want. Encourage artwork, visuals, or charts. Give ELs choices of topics relevant to their daily reality and interests.

Support Reading Comprehension and Writing

  • Point to one reading comprehension strategy relevant to the text (how to find evidence, cause and effect, etc.) by highlighting and labeling each instance of using it.
  • Show text features (bullets, graphs, subtitles, etc.) and discuss why they are important for comprehending that text—and for students’ later writing.
  • Connect language, reading, and writing by having students collect interesting words in the text: polysemous words, cognates to words in their home language, and connectors/transition words. Show how they can use these in their writing.
  • If possible, in delivering these supports to help ELs perform in content-area classes, have three lesson templates ready: high tech, low tech, and paper packets—for those who have more complete technology, those who only have a phone, and those who have no tech.

Seeing Them Differently

When schools open again, educators will likely have learned a lot about equity and what was missing before the COVID-19 days. It’s possible that a takeaway from this long hiatus may be the heightened awareness of ELs and how core-content teachers can —and should — be great teachers of ELs.

EL students will come back to school buildings with many new skills: while at home, they’ll have made more decisions, negotiated, taken charge, and translated. Some may have practiced workplace skills because they worked to help support their families. We hope that by fall, all teachers and administrators will see ELs in a different light—or really see some for the first time.

About the authors

Margarita Calderόn is professor emerita at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her latest book, cowritten with Shawn Slakk, is Success with Multicultural Newcomers and English Learners: Proven Practices for School Leadership Teams (ASCD, 2019). Lisa Tartaglia is a reading specialist, literacy coach, and EXC-ELL coach at Loudoun County High School in Virginia.