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Meeting the Challenges of Teaching English Language Learners & Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students Online during COVID

Teacher and Hispanic student working on laptop

How do you pivot from teaching culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students in the classroom to meeting their needs with online instruction? In the immediate aftermath of nationwide school closings due to coronavirus in the first days of spring, this question loomed large for countless teachers and specialists.

The challenges that educators everywhere faced were immense. Many school closures were sudden, with little time to prepare or make plans. Few schools had guidelines or tools ready for a complete move to virtual learning. In many areas, it wasn’t clear how long the schools would be closed and therefore how much of the curriculum would need to be adapted to an online format.

At home, children faced a traumatic loss of their routines and familiar faces, while their parents juggled telework and homeschooling or scrambled to figure out child care at all if they were essential workers. Parents, caregivers, and educators alike raced to find useful resources to keep their children engaged and to maintain quality education for them. As the school year draws to a close now, many teachers are still finding their footing and facing an uncertain future in the new year this fall. And if anything, these circumstances have been magnified for those working with CLD populations.

ELL and Special Needs Learners Face Additional Challenges

The biggest issue, according to Kristina Collins, co-director of the literacy education programs and division director of literacy at the Loyola Clinical Centers, is access to technology in the first place. “Across the board, this is an equity issue that affects continuity of learning,” she says. “CLD students may not have any Wi-Fi or internet in the home. If they do, they may have only one computer that has to be shared with working parents or other siblings.” Lack of access to technology disproportionately impacts ELL students, particularly those from immigrant families who are economically disadvantaged.

Other considerations might include:

  • How can the curriculum and learning materials be differentiated for CLD students’ needs, especially on learning platforms that don’t easily allow for that?
  • Are their parents or caregivers capable of helping the children—especially younger children—use the online tools to access classes or materials?
  • How often are specialists able to get time with CLD students if they normally meet with them in dedicated time outside their regular classroom?
  • Are instructions and learning materials accessible to parents and caregivers who speak limited or no English, especially in classrooms where many languages are represented?
  • When all students may be struggling to keep focus and pay attention in an online learning environment, how can the educator overcome the additional obstacles to focus for students with limited English or special needs?

It’s no wonder that so many teachers are feeling overwhelmed by the challenge, not just to smoothly transfer their classrooms to remote learning at all, but also to ensure that they’re providing the education that each student needs. They’re reaching out to the internet for help, and fortunately, there are expert resources rising to answer the call.

How Loyola’s Literacy Education Graduate Program Is Responding to Teachers’ Needs

At Loyola’s School of Education, the Literacy Education graduate program staff and faculty have been working with the Educational Technology department to develop a training program for their graduate students who are currently working in schools. The skills those students will develop will serve them throughout their career, but in the short term, the program teaches them to deliver quality education online. Even supervisors in the Literacy Education program are going through the training, because, as Kristina points out, “It’s a learning curve for us as well, being used to doing so much of our work face-to-face.”

Additionally, the School of Education hosted a meeting early on for professors and adjuncts who are working within school systems, to compare notes on how everyone was handling the transition. For many, it was their first chance to share information and get support from others going through the same experience.

Graduate students in the Literacy Education program learn three types of interactions—learner to learner, learner to content, and learner to instructor. Now, that framework informs their online instructional design, as they evaluate ways not only to engage with their children but also to creatively and effectively present lesson content and to ensure that the children have ways to interact with each other.

From their colleagues and training partners in Educational Technology, they’re using the R2D2 model (read, reflect, display, and do) of online instruction design to develop dynamic and engaging online interactions that are inclusive of diverse learning styles and needs. Participants in the training also share articles on the philosophy and design of online environments.

These participants are learning how to use the chat function in online classrooms to develop writing skills, and breakout rooms to give children the opportunity to interact with each other in small groups. Doing Reader’s Theater or reading aloud online develops verbal and reading skills, and breakouts may also be used for dedicated ESL or literacy specialist time.

“It’s about being very intentional about the planning, the delivery, and the assessment and figuring out how to meet them where they are,” says Kristina. “In keeping with the ‘Loyola Ready’ motto, we’re prepping our candidates to work with their classrooms in the future, but also to be ready to put everything in action even as they’re learning it.”

More Resources for Learners across the Nation

The education community, including the experts in Loyola’s Literacy Education program, has rallied to curate and share a wealth of tips and resources for colleagues across the nation. Some of the resources available include:

  • Several internet service providers are offering free months of service, increased speeds, and other discounts to serve households that are low-income and/or include a student.
  • Many school systems offer translation hotlines in different languages to facilitate communication with parents who speak little or no English.
  • Many public libraries and internet service providers (who in some cases have also signed the FCC’s Keep America Connected pledge) are offering wifi hotspots in large business and parking areas to help students access classes online.
  • Loyola’s TeachersConnect is a free online community for teachers to connect, share, and collaborate, where members can trade best practices and ideas.
  • The article “Improving Writing Skills: ELLs and the Joy of Writing” offers suggestions for differentiating lessons while strengthening writing skills for ELL students.
  • “Children’s Writing in ESL” also provides thoughtful insight into developing writing skills with ESL learners and may be useful for teachers who have not had previous training in this area.
  • The ESL Video site offers a wealth of Creative Commons lessons in video form that can help provide another way for students to interact with content.
  • The Visual Dictionary Online can give teachers a way to build vocabulary skills that are reinforced by visual aids.
  • For students with access to iPhones, the International Digital Children’s Library includes (among many other resources) an app called StoryKit that allows children to create stories using text, images, and other elements on an iPhone or iPad.
  • Reading A-Z is a site that provides teachers with teaching materials of a wide variety of types for reading instruction, many of which can be used online.
  • Starfall is a free service dedicated to helping children—especially ELL, CLD, and other special needs learners—to read using a variety of interactive digital materials.

Advice from an Expert

Kristina Collins offers these additional words of advice to educators working with CLD students during quarantine school closures:

  • Ensure the students continue to read, write and speak in their first language. Language development in their first language supports learning their second language (i.e. English). 
  • Teachers and parents/guardians can help students pay attention to the environmental print surrounding them both in English and in their first language.  Environmental print includes signs, posters, brand names, labels, etc., found throughout their home and community.  In reading the print, teachers and parents/guardians can help students identify patterns in words such as rhymes, common phonics patterns and sounds.  They can also help students look for any cognates between the two languages in such environmental print (i.e. television and televisión).  This is something that can even be done without technology access.  
  • EL learners need consistent practice speaking and listening with proficient English speakers in order to build oral fluency.  Parents and caregivers can schedule time for students to talk with friends and family in English via the internet or phone.  Teachers can foster oral language development by providing time for students to talk to each other either during whole group or small group time during online lessons.  

Literacy and ELL Education Needs People Like You

Right now, there’s a growing population nationally of culturally and linguistically diverse students. The field needs educators who are proficient in effectively teaching these students, and advocates for equity in their access to technology. As Kristina puts it, “Access to educational technology is no longer a privilege, it’s a right and a necessity.”

As our economy changes in ways we can’t fully predict yet, and as so many people find themselves re-evaluating their careers and their lives, literacy education offers a growing field with vital and mission-driven work. And while the Literacy Education program requires applicants to be working as licensed teachers, the fully online Teaching English Language Learners Certificate program only requires a bachelor’s degree, opening it up as a pathway to a new and fulfilling career. For more information on the School of Education’s literacy programs, explore our options and consider dropping in on one of our virtual information sessions.