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Teaching English Language Learners Online and At Home

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to the burgeoning of online learning platforms, flipped classrooms, blended and hybrid learning approaches, and synchronous and as

ynchronous learning tools and resources. The transition from face-to-face instruction to virtual and distance learning has been challenging for many teachers, students, and parents. However, for English Language Learners (ELLs) who face the additional difficulty of navigating their virtual learning environment in a second or additional language, online learning can be particularly daunting.

Instructional strategies that have been shown to improve ELLs’ learning are ones that activate their prior knowledge, connect content to language instruction, draw on their linguistic and cultural funds of knowledge, and provide them with opportunities to practise using language in a safe, welcoming, and meaningful context (e.g., Calderón, Slavin & Sánchez, 2011; Cummins & Early, 2015). In my own experience teaching online, I have found these principles and tips recommended by Haynes (2020) and Robertson (2020) to be incredibly helpful:

1. Teach only one new thing at a time. If you’re introducing new language, use an older activity that learners are familiar with. If you’re introducing a new activity, recycle old language or content they’re already familiar with. Don’t attempt to do both at the same time, as that can overwhelm learners.

2. Establish a structured learning environment. Select which online tools you want to use regularly and utilize them consistently. Repeat the same or similar lesson structures with different content (e.g., start the class with a video greeting, do the readings, students comment on the discussion board, students connect with a partner, and then they write or record their key take-aways from the lesson).

3.Emphasize language practice and production. ELLs may not have much English language exposure at home, especially if they speak another language at home (which is very important for their plurilingual development!). Try to build interaction into the lesson so that they do have the opportunity to practise and produce language online (e.g., getting them to post messages on a discussion board via writing, getting them to record an audio or video clip and respond to each other through Flipgrid, etc.)

4.Give students choice in how to demonstrate their learning. Think creatively in terms of how students are completing their tasks and assignments. Some examples that I really love and have worked well are creating a themed music playlist and explaining how each song relates to that topic, dressing up as a character from a book and doing a book review or presentation from that character's perspective, creating slides, compiling a photo montage of the language in their environment.

5. Look for ways to support your learners’ social-emotional learning and well-being. Some of the ways you can do that are by setting up your teaching space to help learners feel connected to you and each other (e.g., decorating your teaching space with familiar objects from the classroom, spending a few minutes each lesson to connect personally with a learner), asking students how they are feeling, giving them time to talk about their lives, being flexible in the scheduling of classes and groupings, holding social online lunches or tea time, always using asset-based language to affirm learners, and very importantly, teaching learners positive self-talk by modelling how to flip negative thoughts into positive ones.

Below, I have compiled a list of additional articles and resources that provide extremely helpful tips and strategies for how to make online and distance learning work well for ELLs.

Check out my blog post on Free Apps and Websites for Language and Literacy Learning for a list of my favourite (free!) websites and apps to use to support language and literacy learning.

Do you have a strategy, activity or resource that has worked well for you? Please drop a line in the comment box below or get in touch with me via the Contact page. I would love to hear and feature your ideas!


Calderón, M., Slavin, R., & Sánchez, M. (2011). Effective instruction for English learners. The Future of Children, 21(1), 103–127.

Cummins, J., & Early, M. (2015). Big ideas for expanding minds. Teaching English Language Learners across the curriculum. Pearson Canada, Inc.

Haynes, J. (2020). Supporting EL's social-emotional learning in a virtual classroom. TESOL International Association.

Robertson, K. (2020). Distance learning for ELLs: Planning instruction. Colorín Colorado.


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