I’ve been listening to English language educators this fall as they share how they are reaching their students in what are likely the most challenging educational circumstances they have ever faced. In a series of webinars we called “Teacher Talks: What’s Working with ELs in Remote Learning,” I’ve heard both disheartening and uplifting stories. 

We ask attendees of the Teacher Talks, who are typically EL educators from around the country, “What is the biggest challenge with this new learning environment for your students?” Two of the most common responses are access to technology and other family responsibilities. 

Access to technology is even more complicated than I realized. One teacher shared that when her 6th grade student was having trouble getting a strong signal to see her on Zoom, she asked if the student could move to another room in the apartment to get a better signal. 

The student replied “My family doesn’t pay enough rent to use the living room.” 

How can a school system overcome this barrier? What can a teacher do to help? This district had worked hard over the summer to provide every student with a Chromebook and free internet access. But the internet provider only installed one connection per home, and many of her students live with multiple families, and often multiple children in the same room trying to do online school simultaneously. Internet access is clearly a more complicated problem.

Student Engagement

Erin Reaves, an ELD Instructional Coach at Taylor Elementary in Santa Maria Bonita, California credits a morning social and emotional learning session for engaging her students. She is teaching fully remote this fall. Every morning from 8-9 AM, she gets on Zoom with her students to just have fun. They sing, dance, talk, and practice using the camera microphone.

“We give them a little bit of happiness to start their day and let them know we are here for them,” says Erin.  

It seems to be working. Erin has 95% engagement from her students online.

Relationship building is also key to Julie Waugh’s success with her ELs. Julie is a social studies, English, and HS English Language Development teacher at a K-12 creative arts academy in Colorado. Her school is fully remote this fall. 

Julie says to build trust with her students she gives them her personal cell phone number and tells them to call or text whenever they need help.

“They know if they are struggling in any of their classes, I am here to assist them,” says Julie. 

She gets texts and calls at all hours, from early morning to evening. 

Another challenge Julie says she can’t do much about, is the fact that, because her students are in high school, many of them are watching younger brothers and sisters, so it’s hard for them to find a time and place to focus on their own work. In addition, some have taken on jobs to help with family expenses. 

What’s Working Well in Remote Learning

Educators have found creative ways to recreate the classroom experience. Abby Osborn, an ELD teacher at Tahoe Lake Elementary, puts her ELs into breakout rooms on Zoom to have smaller conversations about the audio stories they have listened to together. She asks them to do turn-and-talks in the breakout rooms. She is using strategies for building academic conversations outlined by language expert Jeff Zwiers with Listenwise content. 

Abby uses the 30-second Weird News segments to create scaffolded opportunities to practice retelling a story. Using a story such as Young Skateboarder Shreds World Record, she asks the students to just listen to the segment the first time. The second time, they can ask clarifying questions. The third time, the students need to tell the story. This is great practice for their proficiency test which includes a re-tell.

Listening to these teachers of English learners gave me a deep appreciation for all they are doing to keep their students engaged and learning at a very challenging time. If you want to learn more about their strategies, you can watch the full webinars here