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Distance Learning for English Language Learners

by Peter Suanlarm

Is it possible to incorporate distance learning with teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL)? By asking this, I realized that this question opened up an intended can of worms for me. For example, giving students a worksheet and then documenting their scores just does not work for someone who can’t understand you in the first place. Teaching ESOL students oftentimes requires a much more hands-on approach whereby any information delivered in class would have to be deliberate. This includes acting out every word, anticipating questions about the not-so-obvious nuances of the English language, annunciating clearly every syllable, reading every word very slowly, repeating directions over and over again, and so forth. Distance learning just seems incompatible with delivering effective instruction to ESOL students.

This past year was my first year as a teacher of English Language Learners. I wrestled with the steep uphill learning curve in tailoring a curriculum to 25 to 30 different languages and cultures over grades 7 through 12. My responsibility included skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking the English language. I had hoped my experience as a secondary English and History teacher and my own life experience as an ELL would help me navigate this new challenge, but I was only half right.

My educational background allowed me to know where the students needed to go, but it didn’t necessarily prepare me for how to give them the means to get there. My own experiences did provide me with an understanding for how difficult it is to acquire the English language. The process was long and quite arduous and was extremely personal. It was my choice to learn English. It is in my understanding of where ESOL students need to go and how difficult it is to get there that informed me on how to incorporate distance learning into teaching ESOL students.

Here are some insights from what I learned during the past month or so:

First, ESOL students must want to learn English for themselves. It really does not matter why they would want to learn English but, in the end, they must choose to learn English. It is the job of an educator to show reasons for the necessity of being able to communicate effectively. Self-advocacy and self-determination will go a long way to help students be responsible for their own knowledge in distance learning.  

Second, ESOL students and their teacher have to understand that learning requires the use of senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell). Lessons should be diverse and hands on. Although question-based lessons are great assessment tools, project-based assignments often produce the best results for me because it allows for asynchronous learning. Thus, students are able to take in information and express knowledge at their own pace. Perhaps, fluid or negotiated deadlines would allow students to take responsibility for their own time management skills.  

Third, ESOL educators must be available to answer questions by email, phone, and video conferencing office hours. Questions may come at any hour and educators must be ready at all times.

Lastly and possibly most importantly, clear and simple communication is the key to getting any student to do work in distance learning. If students cannot understand the directions, they will not do the work. This is even more important when it comes to ESOL students.

Although many of these insights may not differ much from other subject areas, teaching ESOL forced me to create lessons based on more tangible and reachable goals. I had to ask myself what do I expect students to learn during these unusual times and what kind of lessons will the students be able to do independently. Like most of you, I have mixed results in getting ESOL students engaged but will keep experimenting and growing as an educator.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? What digital programs are you using? What lessons have you tried out? How has distance learning questioned or improved your best practices? How might distance learning improve and/or challenge your teaching in September 2020?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like to find out more information.