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Guidance for navigating remote learning for English learner students

Midwest | April 17, 2020
Guidance for navigating remote learning for English learner students

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest is featuring a blog series on supporting specific student populations as schools shift to remote learning. In this blog post, we focus on the unique needs of English learner students. For more evidence-based resources and guidance on remote learning, see the REL Program’s COVID-19 resources page.

Across the nation, educators and administrators are rapidly adapting their day-to-day routines to provide remote learning for students. One challenge is how best to adapt remote instruction to meet the unique backgrounds and needs of English learner students, who make up a large, growing, and diverse population of students across the country (Office of English Language Acquisition, 2020).

A 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Education explored some of the issues involved in using technology to support English learner students, including concerns about access to the Internet and electronic devices at home as well as a lack of training for teachers in using technology to support this population. When designing instruction for English learner students, it is important first to address the systemic issues of access to technology by providing paper copies of class materials or by using a hybrid approach that consists of a mix of online activities along with activities that do not require technology. The guidance that follows addresses how to support English learner students through online learning platforms but can also apply to the use of paper instructional materials or a hybrid approach.

Evidence-based guidance for English learner students’ remote instruction

English learner students benefit from instruction that is tailored and responsive to their unique linguistic and educational backgrounds (National Academies, 2018). When designing remote learning for English learner students, draw on the evidence-based practices, scaffolds, and modifications recommended in the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide for English learner students to enable students to access content, learn and practice new vocabulary, and develop language through content-area learning (Baker et al., 2014). For guidelines and tips on using technology with English learner students, refer to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition’s (2019) webinar Supporting English Learners Through Technology and the U.S. Department of Education’s educator and developer toolkits on using digital learning resources to support English learner students.

  • Consider adapting existing resources that have already been used in the classroom so that English learner students are familiar with the structure and format.
  • Leverage resources that have existing modifications or supports built in for English learner students (for example, read-aloud features, defining key vocabulary, visuals, word banks, and sentence starters) to support students in learning academic vocabulary in a variety of ways (Baker et al., 2014).
  • Choose resources that present content and language in a variety of formats (audio, visual, text) to provide repetition of language and multiple ways to access and understand content.
  • Provide opportunities for language focus within content-area learning through collaboration with English learner specialists and content-area teachers (Baker et al., 2014).
  • Adapt or provide resources as needed to scaffold English learner students’ reading, viewing, and response to text and multimedia materials so students have structured opportunities for developing written language (for example, share a graphic organizer for notetaking while viewing a video, provide a planning guide for writing a text response, offer recordings of text for English learner students to listen to and repeat) (Baker et al., 2014).
  • Provide resources and materials in a student’s home language when possible.

English learner students develop language proficiency when they have meaningful opportunities to use language, including exposure to varied text types, oral interaction with teachers and peers, and opportunities to read and write for diverse purposes (Saunders & Goldenberg, 1999). When designing remote learning, incorporate opportunities for English learner students to listen, speak, and engage with peers for meaningful oral language interactions.

  • Create meaningful opportunities for student talk in both large- and small-group formats.
  • Offer English learner students a variety of opportunities for participation (for example, listening, watching audio recordings on their own for comprehension, and use of symbols and gestures for response).
  • Include supports and scaffolds for English learner student participation (for example, sentence starters, key vocabulary, visuals) in online forums or conversations.
  • Create small-group opportunities, such as breakout rooms, for peer oral-language practice.
  • Provide small-group support with teachers to target learning specific to English learner students and provide high-quality language interactions (Baker et al., 2014).

English learner students’ linguistic and cultural skills can be leveraged to promote English language development and content understanding (Umansky, Valentino, & Reardon, 2015). Consider student home language and cultural experiences, and build upon those with instruction that takes place in the home.

  • Create learning tasks that draw on family experiences and everyday activities (for example, write a family history, create graphs of objects in the house).
  • For students who have high levels of proficiency and literacy in their home language, encourage parents to use the home language to support reading and writing activities.
  • Create opportunities for same-language peers to have small-group discussions and collaboration in their home language to develop content understanding.
  • Offer communication and instructions for supporting student learning in the home language when available. Offer visuals, video tutorials, and examples for accessing technology tools or processes when home language support is not available.

In a time of dramatic shifts, educators can leverage what we already know about English learner students to support learning in new formats. As remote learning plans are implemented, teachers should engage in conversations with students and their families, adjust plans based on their feedback, and create a solution that is appropriate for their school community.

For more information

REL Midwest is one of 10 RELs that serve designated regions of the country and work with educators and policymakers to support a more evidence-based education system. In response to COVID-19, the RELs are collaborating to produce evidence-based guidance and resources on remote teaching and learning. Browse the collection.


Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website:

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Promoting the educational success of children and youth learning English: Promising futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. (2019). Supporting English learners (ELs) through technology webinar. Bethesda, MD: Author. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from

Office of Education Technology. (n.d.). EdTech for English learners: Expanding access to meaningful learning for English learners through EdTech. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from

Office of English Language Acquisition. (2020). English learners: Demographic trends.

Saunders, W. M., & Goldenberg, C. (1999). Effects of instructional conversations and literature logs on limited- and fluent-English-proficient students' story comprehension and thematic understanding. The Elementary School Journal, 99(4), 277–301.

Umansky, I. M., Valentino, R. A., & Reardon, S. F. (2015). The promise of bilingual and dual immersion education (CEPA Working Paper No. 15-11). Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service. (2019). Supporting English learners through technology: What districts and teachers say about digital learning resources for English learners. Volume I: Final report. Washington, DC: Author.


Rebecca Bergey

Rebecca Bergey

Patricia Garcia-Arena

Patricia Garcia-Arena

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