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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Ten Strategies for Teaching English-Language Learners Online

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 22, 2020 18 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question of the week is:

How can we best support students when we teach online?

In Part One, David Sherrin, Lorie Barber, Janelle Henderson, and Cathleen Beachboard contributed their experiences.

In Part Two, Amy Roediger, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michael Silverstone, and Jeremy Hyler shared their reflections.

In Part Three, Matthew Johnson, Joseph Jones, T.J. Vari, Deb Blaz, and Cindi Rigsbee offered their ideas.

In today’s post, we’ll be exploring answers to an even more focused question:

What works—and what doesn’t work—when teaching English-language learners online during school closures?

In response, Nick Fotopoulos, Helen Vassiliou, Cornelia Okraski, and Sam Olbes talk about what they’re doing with their ELL classes.

You might also be interested in Here’s My Online Teaching Plan If Our School Closes Down Because Of The Coronavirus.

Top 10 ways to handle ELL E-Learning

Nick Fotopoulos is the lead EL teacher at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill. He has taught at Sandburg for the past eight years:

Over the course of the last week, we have embarked on the E-learning journey. Much like many of you, it has been a week of twists, turns, questions, and uncertainness. However, our school community has come together and supplied valuable learning opportunities for our students. In a school of over 3,000 kids, our EL population consists of 120 students in which we service 60 students daily in our fully sheltered EL program. Our students mostly speak Arabic and Spanish and have similar cultural backgrounds. In our classes, their English abilities range from level 0 to fully proficient. This can be both challenging and awesome at the same time. We are extremely lucky to have students who are driven and want to master the English language. The use of technology is nothing new and is a vital part to our successes as teachers and for our students. With that being said, I wanted to give you a “Top 10" list of items that I have found beneficial in our EL E-learning journey. Take a look!

Top 10 ways we are handling EL E-learning:

  1. Use your team - I am lucky to be surrounded by such great teachers and teacher aides. We constantly text, email, call, and video chat to discuss the best way to meet our students’ needs. It’s so important to stay connected.

  2. Use online tools to help assist students and their language needs - YouTube videos, recordings of you explaining directions, videos of you teaching a difficult math problem, using various online resources to help teach material. Translations are essential in all languages—directions for sure! All are so important in keeping students engaged.

  3. Making work easily accessible - We use the online course-management software Canvas as a district. It has been awesome in posting resources, lectures, notes, readings, quizzes, etc., for students to access. We also use Skyward to get information to students. Google Classroom is free for districts that do not have something in place.

  4. Let the students guide the instruction - Have them record, video, explain, and teach a vocab word, a topic, a story, etc. By letting students have a voice in their learning (especially in a time when it truly is on them), it allows them to still feel connected to class and their classmates.

  5. Don’t overwhelm your students - Remember, in a typical high school day, they have 5-7 different classes. Remember, English-learners are still learning the language, and sometimes these “new” systems will impact them in a negative way.

  6. Be patient - In the educational field, we want things to move at our pace. I have learned over the course of the last few days that less is more. I was trying to build these great engaging lessons all while online, but in reality, I needed to give short, pointed assignments that clearly taught the concept at hand. This is so important for English-learners.

  7. Be flexible - Just like in the EL classroom, you need to be flexible in the online space. Make sure the students have what they need to succeed. You may even have to reach out to them personally to make sure they know what to do!

  8. Use your aides - Our EL aides are the best. They have been available via Google Hangouts (chat and video) to help our students with translations, questions, and clarifications. They have been so important!

  9. Try something new - Maybe there is something that you wanted to do but didn’t have the chance. Online learning is a perfect way to do this! Maybe create a Quizlet, Flipgrid, Kahoot, Discussion post, Tik-Tok, Twitter Account, Instagram, etc. Once you get back to the classroom, these will be great tools to use as you continue on with your semester.

  10. Breathe, have fun, and don’t worry about getting to a certain spot. It’s OK to put yourself out there. We are all going through the same thing, and kids need to know that. At this point, school should be an escape from what is going on around us. Allow your kids to have a solid educational experience and have some fun!

Teaching ELLs in the time of corona closure

Helen Vassiliou is an immigrant herself and ESL specialist in West Chester, Ohio, currently serving the most fantastic elementary students and families at Adena Elementary:

It has always been integral to provide ELs with the same educational opportunities as their peers, if not more. I have made it my goal to demonstrate how ELs in Ohio can benefit from personalized learning using tech tools and online platforms. I have pushed the asset-based mindset “YES THEY CAN” so that our ELs are viewed as creators and innovators and not just consumers of information. As their biggest advocate I have implemented new building procedures that give all students access to learning content and English with technology. My students have created videos using WEvideo, they have created New Family Welcome Guides using GoogleDocs, and they have demonstrated that they can use the tools effectively if they have the experience, exposure, and opportunities to do so at school. My ELs are change agents.

Last week, after hearing about the school closures and the need for remote learning, I began to panic. How will my students learn without me? How will they engage in content if they do not have access to technology or Wi-Fi at home? In the lists of distance education resources we are frantically creating and sharing as teachers, I need to address the fact that 83 percent of Ohio’s ELs are economically disadvantaged and may have limited access to reliable internet-connected devices during this school closure. Knowing this, I had to get creative. The first step was using Flipgrid to record a video of myself outside, telling kids to go play outdoors and observe nature and its beauty, to let them see me and know that it’s going to be OK. I sent the video to families using the Talking Points App, which I often use. After students and their families responded back to my video, I knew I had one platform I could use to communicate with kids and parents. Many of my students do not have technology at home. Their apartment complex has a clubhouse with a few to use, but due to the social distancing, they cannot use them at all.

Next week, I will be returning to work virtually. I have only taught online college classes to adults. I’m not so sure how I am going to navigate this new challenge that faces me. I am expected to use the Canvas platform to instruct 3rd-6th grade students during the day. Canvas is a great and all-encompassing tool for remote learning. I can upload videos, give assessments, and upload documents. I am privileged to have it as a district resource available to me, but it may not be the solution for all of my students. Knowing that many of our ELs will not have access to Canvas or technology at all, I decided to make lessons using Nearpod. I make interesting and fun interactive lessons and share the codes with parents via text or Talking Points. I have created two lessons during my break this week, one about bats and one about Anne Frank, and pushed them out as a trial.

What has happened in the last two days is that the parents are learning alongside their children. I can collect data and check for understanding. Students are engaged in learning, even if they have to use a Smartphone or an X-Box instead of a tablet or computer. The uneasy feeling of inequity still exists. Will this kind of learning be enough? No, it will not. Will it be comparable to what their peers receive? No, but this is a plan that I have to try and build and improve, keeping in mind that access to anything is better than no access at all.

I will continue to push out videos using Flipgrid. My students need to see me. We are much more than just a class, we are more like a family. I need to see them, too. When they respond to videos or send messages, I know that they are still thinking about school. I haven’t lost them to fear of the unknown.

Our district is currently working on a plan to get technology and connectivity to each and every student to use and continue to learn from home. District leaders are working on solutions to include all students, including ELs and homeless students in using Canvas as a learning platform. Until those issues get resolved, I will continue to make my daily videos of what I am cooking, the measurements I need for ingredients, quick stories about family traditions and share those with my students. I am thankful for all of the open educational resources I have access to and the free versions that have now become available to use with students and families. As I build the Canvas course to maintain student learning of all language domains, I will make sure that these students have opportunities to create, write books, visit museums, conduct research, collaborate, make up their own songs, and most importantly grow as learners of English. Because I taught them how to use technology for learning, they now will have to use it to continue to learn with me, but not next to me. We may fail, we may prevail, but we will be together again accessing learning.

This is teaching ELs in the time of corona closure.

For a quick list of the online resources I am starting to collect to use with ELs, please visit here.

Personal communication

Cornelia Okraski is an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teacher at a high school in South Carolina. She is currently a doctoral candidate in curriculum & instruction at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who writes about edTPA and the seal of biliteracy:

Exactly one week ago, I finished a busy school day at my South Carolina high school, doing exactly what I do every day. I taught ESL to a class of newcomers; I provided support to dozens of English-learners (ELs) who needed help with assignments, quizzes, and tests before co-teaching biology during the last period of the day. I spent time interacting with my mostly Latino students during two lunch periods, as I usually do. Over the weekend, the governor of the state of South Carolina announced that, as of Monday, March 16, all schools would be closed for two weeks.

On Monday morning, teachers came to school to plan for at least two weeks of online teaching and/or learning. Our school uses Google Classroom, but teachers are not required to use it. My English-language support is typically very personalized and differentiated, not something that lends itself well to Google Classroom.

The school had planned to survey students on Monday about their access to computers, tablets, smartphones, and the internet during a possible school closure. However, since there was no school on Monday, this survey was sent out via email to parents. Asking about internet access via email may sound a bit odd, but there were no other ways to find out this information! If parents responded that there was no or little internet access, teachers were asked to prepare a “paper packet” for pickup later in the week. One EL student wrote in an email from her phone, “did i need yo pick up my class work for all my classes at school o I have to do it all in online for the work for ESL i have to do it in online.” After reading her email, I imagined that others had similar concerns.

On Day 1 of the school closure, I made my very first Google Classroom site. I posted a welcome message, inviting students to join. I recorded an online presentation, mimicking my usual morning routine of conversation and speaking practice. Thanks to Twitter friends and several Facebook groups of ESL teachers, I spent hours perusing websites with free listening and reading activities for English-learners. The creative process would have been more enjoyable if I had not been so pressed for time. I experienced an urgency to create content online in order to have two weeks’ worth of activities ready for students by the end of the day.

The school recommended providing a no-tech option, a choice board of activities for ESL students. I immediately created writing activities ranging from “write 10 questions that your ESL teacher should ask you to learn more about you” to “write about five new things that you have learned in 2020,” and “write a list of five things that you miss about being in school.”

I am expected to spend six hours per school day actively involved in school-related tasks: two hours of planning, two hours of grading, and two office hours (when I must be available via Google Meet and/or email). To be honest, I have been at my computer for much more than six hours per day. One EL student emailed me asking for help with comprehension of a video that a teacher recorded. The student wrote in an email that this particular teacher “is giving us so many videos that we have to watch and complete some work and I can’t understand basically nothing of [the] videos.” The student’s accommodations require English subtitles and guided notes; I was able to provide both after obtaining access to the teacher’s recordings, watching the videos, and sharing my notes with all the EL students who are in this particular class.

If there had been one day to prepare for all of this, I would have shown students how to use my Google Classroom. I would have explained how the listening or reading activities work and how to adjust the levels of difficulty when necessary. I would have signed up the entire class for English-learner apps for smartphones and I would have practiced these apps with them.

My students are not a homogenous Latino group; they come from a variety of Central and South American countries and have very different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. Until now, I did not realize how the extent of differentiation impacts the way I teach every day. My knowledge of students, their English proficiency, and their preferred way of learning are what determine my particular form of differentiation for each student. Teaching online is teaching for and to the average kid in your class, without focusing on what I feel is the most important part of teaching ESL: personalized instruction. In my experience, there really is no “average” English-learner student.

Communicating with students every day is important during school closures, whether that is via email, Google Classroom, video recording, or phone. Teachers of ELs may choose one over the other, depending on their students’ needs. Google Classroom and recorded lessons may not be ideal for smartphones. Instead, personal communication may be the best way to offer students English language and emotional support during school closures.

Steps for online instruction

Sam Olbes supports students, parents, and educators to communicate better as she teaches newcomer ELLs in English and math at Manassas Park High School in Manassas Park, Va.

Distance learning may be new as we navigate our ever-changing normal. During my first week with continued, online learning, I made adjustments to my teaching every day to best accommodate my learners. After reflecting and polling my students, I offer you my experience about what works and doesn’t work for my newcomer, high school ELL students.


Personal Connection

One of the most important things with ELLs is to maintain the high level of personal connection. Every morning, I send out a daily message to the students in my class with a greeting and their agenda for the day. I make a point to personally message two students each day to check in with them, be it a written or video message.

Office Hours. I offer office hours, an hour in the morning and one in the afternoon, to answer questions. We interact through Canvas, my district’s learning-management system. At Manassas Park City schools, we are a 1:1 district, meaning that each student in grades 8-12 has a laptop and K-7, a Chromebook. On Canvas, students can send me a message or request an online conference to video chat. I can also set up a conference meeting for whole-group discussions.

Many of my students message me daily to check in or to say they’ve completed each assignment. I also encourage them to contact their classmates to engender social fortitude. I want them to know that I am here for them, and we are still a community.

Model, Model, Model

When working with ELLs, remember to “model, model, model.” When you think you’re done, model it again. Give them multiple ways to learn the same thing. A couple of days before our school closure, we practiced our distance learning together.

Videos & Visuals. This evolved into me making videos for them using WeVideo or Screencastify. I posted my videos to my district YouTube channel with closed captions and subtitles in English. In Canvas, each day has an agenda page. I make a video that captures my movement on my computer screen as I explain what they will do and share their content and language objectives.

For my assignments, I made lecture videos to introduce the material and demonstration videos to explain how I want them to complete their assignments. I often use visuals to help solidify concepts. I found success with these as I checked my students’ comprehension with their work.

Transitions. Another thing that supports my students’ comprehension is the use of transitions to alert them to what’s coming. At the end of a lecture video, I put a slide up to signal them to return to Canvas to do a practice assignment on the topic we just covered.

Formatting. I also found success in keeping the same formatting as before. With their increased anxiety about our current situation, I didn’t want to change too many things. This gives my ELLs a sense of normalcy when they see their routines built into their online learning. When I finish teaching a specific topic (“chunking”), I put up a slide that says, “Ask me a question.” This gives them time to process the information and ask questions.

Be User-Friendly. Additionally, I aim to make things user-friendly. I give them options to access the same material—a link that opens up an extra tab, a link for them to copy and paste, an embedded video or picture, an embedded document, etc. I utilize bullet points and indentations to organize my material. If there are extra steps involved, they may not have success.

Repetition. My students shared that this was critical to their success. Our students are learning in a different environment. There could be many distractions at home, so constantly hearing or seeing concepts can assist with them mastering skills.


Vague vs. Too Much Instruction. When you aren’t specific, things don’t get done or they get done incorrectly. ELLs can feel overwhelmed when given too much free range; however, this doesn’t mean overloading them with text as that can produce the same feeling. This means be purposeful in the words you use. Be specific and take out the fluff.

Inconsistency. Moving classes completely online involved a learning curve. I know that I was inconsistent with what I published to Canvas and I felt that each day got better. Because my students told me that Canvas can be difficult to follow or understand, I focused on being consistent with my formatting and transitions. I’ll ask them again next week for feedback.

While information is constantly changing as we practice social distancing, I work hard to offer my ELLs the best that I have from afar. That involves self-reflection and continuing to learn so I can do what is correct for them.

Thanks to Cornelia, Nick, Helen, and Sam for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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