May 05 2020

How to Support English Language Learners During E-Learning

Bridging the digital divide and tailoring ed tech tools to ELL students’ needs can help schools ensure they’re learning and thriving.

For school districts implementing e-learning plans, a key concern is ensuring equity and access to learning materials for all students.

Some students may not have access to the devices needed to complete e-learning activities, while others may not be able to connect to the internet from home.

There’s also the question of whether students have at-home support to guide them through technical difficulties, and whether the tools their district is using for remote learning meet their individual learning needs.

It’s crucial for school leaders and educators to address those challenges as the transition to e-learning can put already-struggling students even further behind. That’s particularly true for students who are English language learners, or ELLs.

MORE ON EDTECH: Read about the digital tools that can boost the success of e-learning.

What Remote Learning Challenges Do ELL Students Face?

ELLs are the fastest-growing population of students in U.S. public schools, according to the National Education Association. But some schools still struggle to provide them with the necessary support to fully succeed in the classroom.

NPR reports that ELLs are often “concentrated in low-performing schools with untrained or poorly trained teachers.” And, as a whole, their graduation rates are lower than their counterparts — only 63 percent of ELLs graduate from high school, compared with the national rate of 82 percent, according to the most recent data.

Schools across the country have tried to bridge that gap with technology. With digital tools, teachers can better personalize learning for ELLs and connect with them and their families, despite the language barrier.

Teachers can also leverage technology to support ELLs during remote learning. But even though e-learning has quickly become the default solution for many school districts, there are ELLs who lack the necessary technology and internet access at home to use digital learning resources, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Education. Other barriers the study found include teachers’ need for expertise in ELL instruction and their level of tech skills.

Watch Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, and Joe Sanfelippo, Fall Creek School District superintendent, talk about key considerations when implementing e-learning in K–12 schools.

It’s also hard for ELLs to improve their language skills without the face-to-face interactions they usually have at school, says James Cohen, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University’s college of education, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

Cohen also shares that newcomer ELLs and their families may not fully understand how the U.S. school system works. Plus, there are parents who don’t speak English themselves or who may come from a country where internet access and the use of ed tech tools are less prevalent. That can make it difficult for them to communicate with teachers and help their children with online schoolwork, he says.

But there are steps districts can take to ensure ELLs are learning and thriving, even if school needs to take place at home.

How Are School Districts Bringing ELL Students Online?

School districts have been working hard to distribute devices such as laptops, headsets and mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to help transition ELLs to remote learning.

Many districts have partnered with telecommunications companies such as Verizon and Sprint to bring online learning to students who lack internet access at home. In California, Google has even provided Chromebooks to students in greatest need.

Other districts have turned to Wi-Fi-enabled buses to deliver internet access to households without. Even before remote learning, California’s Coachella Valley Unified School District installed Cradlepoint Wi-Fi routers in 100 buses. They parked the buses in the most underserved neighborhoods during nonschool hours so those communities could get internet access.

Meanwhile, Charleston County School District in South Carolina increased Wi-Fi output signals inside school buildings so neighboring communities could tap in from home or access Wi-Fi from the school parking lot.

READ MORE: Learn how next-generation IoT devices can increase home internet access for students.

How Can Ed Tech Tools Enable Remote Learning for ELL Students?

Educators can also tailor digital tools, such as collaboration suites and online learning platforms, to their ELL students. G Suite for Education, which includes Google Slides and Docs, has translation features that can help ELLs learn new words or express themselves in English. If teachers are using Google Classroom to manage coursework virtually, students can also use the Google Translate extension to translate content when needed.

Microsoft has a similar feature called Microsoft Translator, which teachers can use to transcribe and translate PowerPoint lessons in over 60 languages. This tool is integrated into communication platforms like Skype and Microsoft Teams’ instant messaging feature, which makes communicating with multilingual families easier for teachers. There’s also the Immersive Reader tool, which ELLs can use to not only translate text, but also have it read out loud to them or explained with a picture dictionary.

Using video is another great way to help ELLs learn academic language and concepts, according to Colorín Colorado, WETA’s educational service for educators and families of ELLs. Applications like Flipgrid, which enables teachers to facilitate video discussions, empower ELLs to freely share their thoughts and ideas, and also practice speaking and listening skills.

Teachers can also make remote learning more engaging with synchronous instruction using platforms with captioning or translation capabilities, such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex or Zoom for Education. For students who aren’t able to keep up with live instruction, teachers can prerecord their lessons on apps such as Screencastify or Nearpod.

Videoconferencing platforms also let teachers check in on ELL students and see how they’re doing, as well as stay connected with their parents and families. They can even use screen-sharing features on these platforms to walk parents through any digital tools they may not know how to use. Some teachers have filmed multilingual how-to videos for popular programs like Google Classroom and shared them with parents.

It’s also possible for teachers to engage ELLs during remote learning, even if they don’t have internet. But no matter what method they choose, it’s most important for teachers to be sensitive to their students’ situations and make sure they’re setting reasonable goals and expectations for learning.

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