Engaging ELs Who Are Disengaged During Virtual Learning

If you are an educator of English learners (ELs) who is instructing your students virtually, you are probably having difficulty successfully engaging them. This is especially true if you have newcomers in your class. For online learning in virtual classrooms, we need to revisit and modify tried-and-true strategies that we use to educate ELs when we see them in person in a brick-and-mortar building.

One challenge that I’m hearing about is that many classroom teachers are recording their lessons, and students view these lessons when they are able. ELs, especially newcomers, may not be able to understand a lesson taught this way. Beginning ELs need to have live lessons in real time with teachers every day. The also need an occasion to practice oral English language acquisition daily. Planning these lessons might be an overwhelming task for classroom teachers, so collaboration with ESL educators is crucial.

Here are six basic tenets for teaching ELs that translate well to virtual learning.

1. Determine Content and Language Objectives for Each Lesson

Communicate your content and language objectives to students in clear, explicit language. At the end of the lesson, ask ELs if the objective has been met. This focuses students on what they are learning and how they will learn it. If your content object is to have ELs provide examples of solids, liquids, and gasses, the language objective could be to have them write a simple sentence about the stages of matter.

2. Build Background Knowledge

Student Backgrounds: All ELs are not the same. They come from diverse backgrounds with different cultures and family economic backgrounds. According to Short & Echevarria (2004/2005), some of our ELs come from highly educated families and read and write at a high level in their home language. Others live in homes where there is food insecurity, a high level of poverty, and a struggle to meet basic needs. Some students may lack formal learning in their home country. Teachers need to consider the schema that ELs bring to the classroom and to link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences.

Background Knowledge: When linking content to ELs’ background knowledge, teachers need to know what academic learning their students have had in the past. This can be academic learning or life experiences. According to Marzano (2004) in Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, with this information, teachers will be able to help students more readily acquire new knowledge. Marzano says “What students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content” (Marzano, 2004, ch. 1).

3. Provide Comprehensible Input for English Learners

At the best of times, it is essential that ELs receive content information that is at their English language development level. This becomes more crucial in a virtual classroom.

In August, I wrote a blog for TESOL entitled “7 Virtual and Face-to-Face Activities for the First Week of School.” The activities listed will provide ELs with compelling and engaging work and would scaffold their learning in nonthreatening ways so that they can participate in virtual learning. Teachers have reported that the attention span of their ELs in a virtual classroom is much shorter than in a face-to-face environment.

4. Prepare Lessons That Are Visual and Kinesthetic

Find graphs, maps, photographs, drawings, and charts that bring the content alive and make it meaningful. ELs will also benefit from hands-on activities that relate to their content. One way to engage students in the content is to plan short, live mini-lessons using comprehensible language. Investigate project-based learning. This approach can be used at any grade level and gives ELs a chance to have voice in their learning. There are great examples of this method at PLB works.

5. Use Cooperative Learning Strategies

Lecture-style teaching often excludes ELs from the learning. If they don’t have the English language development level to understand the content, ELs do not have equal access to the teaching. As I mentioned, teachers have reported that students’ attention spans are shorter during virtual teaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to short mini-lessons and hands-on virtual lessons, working in small groups is especially beneficial to ELs who have an authentic reason to use academic vocabulary and real reasons to discuss key concepts. ELs benefit from cooperative learning structures. It gives them an opportunity to use language in a nonthreatening manner. Teachers need to be available to monitor small groups to make sure everyone is participating. Tasks should be explicitly explained so that all students know what they are supposed to be doing.

6. Modify Vocabulary Instruction for English Learners

Most teachers do this in a face-to- face environment, but it becomes more crucial when teaching virtually. If at all possible, teachers need to have live interactions with struggling students.

  • Don’t overwhelm ELs with too many new words at a time.
  • Pick vocabulary that is absolutely essential in each unit.
  • Introduce the vocabulary in a familiar and meaningful context and then again in a content-specific setting. For example, in a unit on tornadoes, the word front needs to be reviewed in a familiar context and then taught in the context of the unit.

One last strategy that I recommend is to tape the live lesson while you are working with ELs so that they can review it on their own; this enables them to slow down and parse the lesson—and the new vocabulary—in a way that works for them.

If you have any ideas on how to engage disengaged students with whom you are working virtually, please share in the comment section below.


Short, D., & Echevarria, J. (December 2004/January 2005). Teacher skills to support English language learners. Educational Leadership, 62(4), 8–13. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec04/vol62/num04/Teacher-Skills-to-Support-English-Language-Learners.aspx

Marzano, R. J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement. ASCD.

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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