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I’ve been doing a series of posts on different aspects of teaching ELLs in distance learing.

The first was Six Ways That Newcomers Can Interact With Online Text.

The second was Four Ways To Support ELLs Who Were Absent From Class.

You also might be interested in First Quarter Report on What I’m Doing in Full-Time Distance Learning & How It’s Going.

This post will discuss some specific instructional strategies that could support ELLs, along with web tools that help apply them.

Of course, as I’ve emphasized in my previous posts and in all my writings on teaching ELLs, good teaching for ELLs is good teaching for everybody, so many of these strategies can be helpful with more English-proficient students (I certainly apply most of them in my IB classes).


1) Ignore design rules for attractive slideshows.

Though I teach students the rules of good slide design (see The Best Resources For Teaching Students The Differences Between A Good & Bad Slide),  I never use images in the slides I show during distance learning.  Though I don’t fill up every space with text, I write on each slide the most important information I want students to learn.  This practice both helps ELLs not miss key points in class and helps students who are absent and see the slides posted on Google Classroom at a later time.


2) Breakout rooms rule!

It’s often easier for ELLs (and for everybody else) to feel comfortable asking for help or clarification in a small group than in a full classroom.  Strategic grouping can make sense – putting an ELL in a group with another bilingual student can help (as long as you have spoken with the bilingual student ahead of time and they are enthusiastic about assisting).  By the way, I’ve found that three has been a good number for breakout rooms (you might also be interested in The Best Posts On The Basics Of Small Groups In The Classroom).


3) But breakout rooms only rule if there are key leaders for each one.

Breakout rooms can work great, but I have found it’s critical to have students who are trained and eager to take leadership roles in them.  You can see the qualities I have found important in “leadership teams” that are set-up in each of my classes at Results Of Weekly “Self-Assessments” Done By Members Of “Leadership Teams” In Each Of My Classes.


4) Create opportunities and expectations for interactivity every three minutes.

I think this “rule” works well for all students, but especially for ELLs.  It’s particularly easy to “zone-out” when you are not necessarily understanding what is going on (you can get a sense of what English sounds like to someone who does not speak it at The Best Sites For Walking In Someone Else’s Shoes).  I’ve given several ideas at Six Ways That Newcomers Can Interact With Online Text, and here are a few others:


Asking people to share responses in the chat box

Asking for responses using the different “reaction” icons available on Zoom

I’m a big fan of because students can write on the “whiteboards” without seeing what others are putting down, thereby limiting “copying.” It’s a great tool for formative assessment.

Check for understanding through thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs on the side, through either showing physical or virtual thumbs.


5) In addition to providing sentence-starters and writing frames (see The Best Scaffolded Writing Frames For Students), provide step-by-step instructions – in other words, a sequence – for how students should do assignments (see this example).

I’ve always provided sentence-starters and writing frames, but didn’t feel a need to provide these kinds of step-by-step instructions.  But now, not only am I not immediately available to respond to student questions, I also can’t see quizzical expressions on student faces AND I have less daily class time (for all practical purposes, our classes just meet twice each week).  This kind of sequential outline has been appreciated by students.


6) “Standardize” instructional routines as much as possible.

I’m all for creativity and spontaneity in the classroom.  However, having some predictable instructional routines can reduce confusion and increase everybody’s self-confidence, especially ELLs.  For example, I often use jigsaws in class and, when we do them, we always do them one of two ways – either groups present together or everyone in the group presents on their own to members of other jigsaw groups.  Students “know the drill.”  The same holds true with having a warm-up routine at the beginning of each class where students respond to a question in writing, then go into breakout rooms where they share that response, answer an additional more personal question to further relationship-building, and write down one thing another person in their group said.


7) “Gamify” activities as much as possible, but also set-up ELLs to be successful.

The term “affective filter” was developed by linguist Stephen Krashen to refer to various barriers to language acquisition.  The ideas in this post are designed to lower the affective filter of ELLs, and “gamifying” instruction is another strategy for doing just that.  As Prez famously said in HBO’s “The Wire”:

Trick them into thinking they aren’t learning, and they do.

My favorite game sites are Quizizz and Baamboozle.  Quizizz is like Kahoot, but with the key difference is that students don’t have to split their screens to see both the question and answer – Quizizz shows both on the same screen.  I don’t want to ever have students feel bad about “losing,” so I have students work as teams in breakout rooms during the competition.  In those cases, even the last place team ends up pretty close to the top spot on the leaderboard that shows up between questions.

It’s super-easy to quickly make a Quizizz game, but there are so many already on the site that have been made by other teachers that you can generally find one that already meets your needs.

I like Baamboozle because it’s set-up that students can play as teams in a whole class environment with “turn-taking.”  So members of the same team can talk about their answer in front of everyone else.

I generally will teach a concept and then follow it up with a reinforcing game on Quizizz played in teams.  Those results will provide a rough formative assessment, but then I’ll assign the game individually on Google Classroom so I can get individual results.

In classroom life before the pandemic, and in distance learning, Quizizz games always get the highest ratings of all activities in anonymous classroom evaluations.


8) Create options for how ELLs can learn the basic ideas of a lesson depending on their language-proficiency.

There are lots of options out there for ELLs to learn basic concepts in their home languages (see The Best Multilingual & Bilingual Sites For Learning English and The Best Multilingual & Bilingual Sites For Math, Social Studies, & Science).  And there are plenty of sites that provide the same article at different Lexile levels, along with tools that let you do the same with any text (see The Best Places To Get The “Same” Text Written For Different “Levels”).

These resources are great to use when we’re in the physical classroom, but are essential for use in distance learning.

Listen, our students are stressed, we teachers are stressed, and we have less instructional time.  Let’s figure out the core essentials that our students need, and get those to them in any way we can.


9) Differentiate assignment expectations.

It’s just going to take ELLs a longer period of time to do any assignments.  Jeez, if I had to do assignments in Spanish, I’d be going out of my mind!

Figure out the minimum amount (number of slides in a required slideshow presentation, number of questions to answer, number of words in an essay, etc.) needed to demonstrate understanding, and set that expectation (actually, during these crazy days, that’s probably a good benchmark for everybody).


10) Incorporate self-paced sites for student practice outside of class.

Quill is an example of a great adaptive learning – like site that lets students take periodic “diagnostics” on grammar and writing, and then recommends simple and short follow-up exercises based on the diagnostic results.

The Progress Principle shows that achieving small regular wins are a key to creating the conditions to nurture intrinsic motivation, and Quill-like sites are ideal for facilitating those “wins” when students are not in class with us.

Though there are plenty of similar math sites, others are few and far between (Scootpad and No Read Ink appear to have some similar elements for English Language Arts; Brainpop ELL also has adaptive elements). Jeremy Hertz from Quill just did tell me today, though:

We just recently added filters for teachers to be able to find activities aligned to specific subjects and content areas. We’re also releasing, in the near future, some newer, more subject aligned activities involving reading comprehension.


11) Create a meeting time at the beginning of the week where ELLs (and others) can come and be “briefed” by you about the lessons coming up.

I have many ELLs in my IB Theory of Knowledge classes, and every Monday during lunch we have a voluntary meeting where I go over what we will be doing in class during the rest of the week.  Not only does that create an opportunity for students to ask questions and get additional clarity, but it also puts them in an unusual “power” position in the class because they know more about what’s initially going on than the other IB Diploma candidates! It’s an opportunity for a role reversal in terms of who is helping whom!


12) Use FluentKey when showing videos or, at least, use the FluentKey strategy when showing them.

FluentKey is a Quizizz or Kahoot-like online game site.  The difference is that it uses videos – questions are spread out in the videos, and students have to answer them.  They have a lot of videos on site, and it’s also very easy to create your own (it’s like EdPuzzle, but in game-form).

Showing short snippets of videos, punctuated by questions, makes comprehension a lot easier for ELLs and typically heightens engagement levels for all learners.

Even if you can’t find the right video on FluentKey, and you don’t have time to upload one, showing videos this way can work almost as well.

At the same time, though, I, along with most other teachers, can sometimes relish a few minutes of just showing a video when we’re having a rough day.


13) “Wait-time” is important.

Whether we’re in the physical or virtual classroom, “wait-time” is critical (see The Best Resources On The Idea Of “Wait Time”).  Give ELLs, and everybody else,  several seconds to process questions before you expect a response.  Even better, as much as possible, use the “Think, Write, Pair-Share” strategy with breakout rooms so that ELLs and other students get the processing time they need in order to effectively learn.

When I was a community organizer for nineteen years prior to my high school teaching career, we used to talk about the difference between “opinion” and “judgment.”  We have an opinion prior to talking or listening to anyone else.  We develop judgment after we have that interaction.  Using the “Think, Write, Pair-Share” strategy, and explicitly encouraging students to modify their initial response based on their conversations, can teach an important lesson about “judgment.”  And, boy, does our country need more “judgment” than “opinion”!


Okay, these are my top thirteen strategies.

Tell me what I’m missing, and tell me if you think I’ve missed the boat on some of my recommendations!