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HomeFeaturesTaking English Learning Online

Taking English Learning Online

Armando T. Zúñiga shares strategies that encourage effective instruction for English language learners in remote-learning environments

Instructional strategies that have proven effective in improving English language learner (ELL) achievement include providing ELLs with intentionally planned vocabulary instruction; using gestures, visual cues, or realia; providing opportunities to practice using language; activating prior knowledge; and linking content to language instruction (Calderón et al., 2011; Facella et al., 2005; Gersten and Baker, 2000; Haynes and Zacarian, 2010; Lake and Pappamihiel, 2003). However, with the COVID-19 crisis, many educators are converting their face-to-face pedagogies into remote-learning pedagogies. Differentiating instruction to meet the diverse learning needs of ELLs can be difficult even in the best educational scenarios. In fact, several studies indicate that in spite of the growing numbers of ELLs across the country—and extensive research in effective strategies for their instruction—many teachers feel unprepared to teach them and indicate a need for effective and relevant professional development (Batt, 2008; Elfers and Stritikus, 2014; Molle, 2013). As the complexity and urgency of this task increase, how might we adapt our face-to-face instructional routines and strategies to work within remote-learning/online platforms to support the needs of ELLs? Extensive research has been dedicated to exploring this question (Hanson-Smith and Rillings, 2007; Li and Swanson, 2014). Below is a small sampling of research-based instructional strategies that are effective in promoting language acquisition for ELLs and can be operationalized into a remote-learning format. Not all the relevant research is represented in this article; however, the intent is to launch discourse and reflection around how we can support our ELLs in this time of transition to remote- or online-learning environments.

Vocabulary Instruction

Research on vocabulary instruction for ELLs consistently shows the need for intentionality within the pedagogical design. Further, research supports that implementation of evidence-based strategies within the language pedagogy of teachers of ELLs will promote language acquisition. Effective vocabulary instruction requires teachers to be explicit about teaching the structural analysis of words and morphemes—that is, parts of words (Calderón et al., 2011; Cardenas-Hagan, 2015; Short and Echevarria, 2005).

Along with dissecting words into parts, teachers should promote the use of the students’ native languages and encourage the use of cognates for students to identify and define the words they are using (Cardenas-Hagan, 2015). Further, ELLs should be exposed to words of varying complexities and from diverse lexicons—these can be words from what Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) define as multiple tiers. Finally, vocabulary should be offered multiple times within the context of student learning (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2013; Wessels, 2011) to build a vocabulary base.

Incorporating Technology

The accessibility of mobile phone technology and its associated applications have made technological learning resources more accessible for those who have access to them. For example, a study by Kohnke et al. (2019) illustrated that the use of mobile applications supported the knowledge and retention of business vocabulary—a specific lexicon. This is of particular interest for content-specific teachers who employ the unique lexicons of the subject matters that they teach. This knowledge provides us with an opportunity to explore mobile applications such as word games and flash-card builders to support vocabulary learning given as an asynchronous assignment. Additionally, if key vocabulary is presented to students asynchronously, they can use an online translator or application to help understanding using the support of their first languages.

Use of Visual Cues, Gestures, and Realia

To further promote contextualization of language, research points to the use of visual cues, gestures, and realia as effective in supporting language acquisition for ELLs. For example, this includes the use of visual cues such as pictures, gestures, and realia in pedagogy to help students contextualize words and facilitate language development and engagement (Facella et al., 2005; Gersten and Baker, 2000; Slavin and Cheung, 2005; Walqui, 2006).

Incorporating Technology

Li (2013) suggests using visual aids to assist students with meaning making. The research states that “the use of visual aids functions especially well when a piece of text cannot convey a concept” (Li, 2013). In a remote-learning environment, an instructor can embed digital images and pictures of realia within online lectures (via slides or links).

Further, synchronous online-learning classrooms provide an opportunity for the instructor to use physical gestures on screen—taking full advantage of the students’ focus and attention in this environment.

Opportunities to Practice Using Language

Engagement with the language includes the use of English in conversations about the new learning. Several studies support teachers providing intentionally planned opportunities for ELLs to practice new language in the classroom (Cardenas-Hagan, 2015; Facella et al., 2005; Gersten and Baker, 2000; Short and Echevarria, 2005). This includes structuring conversations for students to practice with peers and/or in small groups (i.e., reciprocal teaching or cooperative learning groups) to use the new language to make meaning of what is being taught (Cadeiro-Kaplan et al., 2011; Gersten and Baker, 2000; Walqui, 2006).

Incorporating Technology

One example in Wu et al. (2017) describes how students used mobile messaging applications to engage in oral-language practice activities. “Technology, with distinctive features such as mobility, reachability, personalization, spontaneity, and ubiquity, is widely used to facilitate language teaching and learning.” In particular, “incorporating mobile devices appropriately can ‘have the potential to revolutionize the way we work and learn’” (Peters, 2007 in Wu et al., 2017).

This could include asking students to use audio-recording applications, video-recording applications, or screen-cast technologies to narrate slide presentations(i.e., PowerPoint, Keynote, etc.). These files may then be uploaded to a learning management system or shared during online instruction by the student or instructor.Additionally, creating break-out sessions and opportunities for small groups to discuss and make meaning of the content being taught will support ELLs within the online-learning environment.

Activating Prior Knowledge

Literature on language acquisition encourages building on ELLs’ prior knowledge to promote language development. Specifically, research recommends that teachers ask questions or elicit discussion, use pictures or videos, act out or demonstrate concepts, or provide anticipatory guides to help students activate prior knowledge (Harper and de Jong, 2004; Haynes and Zacarian, 2010; Short and Echevarria, 2005; Walqui, 2006). Embedding these specific strategies into lessons will promote meaning making of concepts for ELLs as they approach deeper learning of content.

Incorporating Technology

Technology provides several media through which to activate prior knowledge and deepen understanding for ELLs. “Technology is a convenient tool to increase comprehensible input and helps incorporate the above-mentioned strategies to provide the demonstration of the concrete examples of concepts” (Dukes, 2005 as cited in Li, 2013).

For instance, providing advanced access to various forms of multimedia can help students to preview the content within a meaningful context (Dukes, 2005 as cited in Li, 2013).

Linking Language Learning to Content

Harper and de Jong (2004) argue that a reductive approach to the effective teaching of ELLs that defines it as “just good teaching” fails to address the specific language demands of the content areas. In the content-area classroom, ELLs are completing two tasks—the learning of the content and the learning of the language of that content. Research concedes that this is challenging but argues that this is possible for ELLs (Gersten and Baker, 2000). Further, research supports linking language with content to promote learning of content while building academic language (Short and Echevarria, 2005). This includes having content-area teachers surface the language demands of their content and embed language objectives into their daily content-area pedagogy.

Incorporating Technology

A study by Ustunel and Tokel (2017) examined student learning that was scaffolded with technology. Specifically, teachers provided students with sentence starters within an online environment. They reported that students “were more focused [in their writing] with sentence starters.” Further, students “benefited from the use of hints, sentence starters, and question prompts, which led the students to develop their ability to construct… more sophisticated arguments.”

One way to operationalize this is to provide key language demands of each lesson to students ahead of time. In a remote- or online-learning environment this may include intentionally embedding sentence frames or sentence starters into the lesson and surfacing the relationship between language use and content within the context of the learning. An instructor can provide the language that students need to know and use in the form of sentence starters or sentence frames via the chat box of the online-teaching platform to guide student oral-language practice. In a study of the use of discussion boards in an asynchronous learning environment by Ringler et al. (2015), qualitative data illustrated that “students and instructors felt the Discussion Boards were integral to the learning process in an online environment.”

To help student writing in the content area, an instructor can provide sentence starters or frames via a class discussion board. This will promote student participation with language and content asynchronously. The intent of this article is to stimulate discourse and reflection around how we can support our ELLs in this new learning environment. As educators move forward to meet this new opportunity head on in the face of this crisis, we have a responsibility to all of our students.

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Dr. Armando T. Zúñiga is the faculty director of English language learning, director of the Writing Center, and assistant professor at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California. He also consults with school districts to support ELD programs and instruction. He earned his doctorate from the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC).

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