4 Pathways to a Culturally Responsive Virtual Classroom

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is grounded in the idea that educators teach to students’ unique cultural strengths.  A well-known author in the field of culturally responsive teaching, Zaretta Hammond,  has provided professional development based on her book,  Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. She provides some excellent professional development entitled Distance Teaching and Remote Learning in the Age of COVID-19.  These webinars are available virtually.

In view of the move to virtual learning in many classrooms across the United States, I would like to link the pathways to a culturally responsive classroom to online instruction of English learners (ELs). Following are four avenues to a culturally responsive classroom that teachers of ELs need to take into consideration when teaching virtually.

1. Get to Know Your English Learner

Virtual learning may lead to isolation of ELs (and other students) because they do not have  access to WiFi or devices on which to complete lessons. They may also feel a great deal of stress and anxiety due to the pandemic. Teachers need to build relationships with students virtually just as they would if they were in a face-to-face environment. At the heart of CRT of ELs is for teachers to value what each student brings to the classroom. They need to consider what schema ELs bring and to link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences. They should also strive to make the information relevant to ELs.

In a recent Twitter #ellchat about ELs in a hybrid classroom, educator Jacqueline Leon commented, “If only we are willing to shift our lens; ELs aren’t ‘at-risk.’ ELs are ‘at-promise’ students who should not be unduly exposed in a pandemic to still receive the quality education due to them. Let’s value ELs’ experience outside 4 walls.”

2. Build Relationships With the Families of English Learners

The most prominent difficulty that teachers have mentioned during virtual teaching is that of communicating with families who do not have internet and reaching students who are not showing up to their online meetings during the pandemic. Teachers have also found that many of their EL families were unaware of the information that was coming from their school district about remote learning, offers of devices, or opportunities for free WiFi service from local providers or through hotspots purchased by their school district.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to schools that they need to keep up-to-date contact information for the families of their ELs.  Many schools were unprepared to meet this challenge in March, but they have now had 6 months to prepare to provide quality education to ELs virtually. In order for ELs to have equal access to education, they and their families need to receive all school communications in their first language.

3. Provide a Welcoming Classroom Environment for Your English Learners

Teachers can alleviate many fears experienced by beginning ELs by creating a welcoming environment in their virtual classrooms. Provide a physical environment that invites students into your space.  One of the key features of a welcoming environment for ELs is use of asset-based language. Using asset-based language fosters your ELs’ feeling of safety, where “trustworthiness, collaboration, empowerment, and acknowledgment of students’ personal, social, cultural, and life experiences are present” (Zacarian, Alvarez-Ortiz, & Haynes, 2020).

LeighAnn Matthews, ESL Coach at Bridgewater-Raritan Public Schools in New Jersey, told me the following:

I’ve been concentrating on helping ESL teachers and content teachers develop a stronger “can do” approach to teaching ELs. In turn, this will help them see ELs from a strengths-based lens as opposed to a deficit lens. This is critical, especially in a  virtual environment, where again, everyone is hyper focused on the challenges and negativity. How can we take those challenges and use them to determine things that are actually student strengths?

The more accepted and secure your ELs feel in your virtual classroom, the more quickly they will be able to learn. The more anxiety students experience, the less language they will comprehend. Encourage ELs to write in a home-language diary and draw pictures of people and places in their home countries, and share music from their culture. Instead of asking questions where students need to volunteer a response, ask question that students can answer as a group in their chat box, by raising their hands, or by using emojis (e.g., the “thumbs up” emoji).

4. Make Academic Information Accessible to English Learners

Scaffolding academic learning so that ELs are full participants in your classroom, either virtually or face-to-face, is essential to their academic success. Lecture-style teaching excludes ELs from the learning in a classroom; they benefit from cooperative learning strategies. We don’t want to relegate them to the fringes of the classroom, doing a separate lesson with a classroom aide or ESL teacher. When teachers scaffold lessons, they break down the language into manageable pieces or chunks. This can be done by

  • connecting new information to prior experiences,
  • preteaching academic vocabulary,
  • using graphic organizers, and
  • using sentence frames.

Working in small groups gives students an authentic reason to use academic vocabulary and real reasons to discuss key concepts. (See my previous blog, “4 Strategies for Scaffolding Instruction for ELs.”)

Please share your ideas for how virtual classrooms can be culturally responsive in the comment box below. I would love to hear about your experiences.


León, J. [@TrentonMakes77]. 2020, August 19). If only we are willing to shift our lens; ELLs aren’t “at-risk”. ELLs are At-Promise students who should not be. Twitter. https://twitter.com/TrentonMakes77/status/1296260832758833153

Zacarian, D., Alvarez-Ortiz, L., & Haynes, J. (2020, April 7). 5 essential trauma-informed priorities for remote learning. ASCD Inservice. https://inservice.ascd.org/5-essential-trauma-informed-priorities-for-remote-learning/

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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