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eLearning Blog: 5 Ways to Ensure eLearning Doesn’t Leave English Learners Behind

Katy Walter Lichon, Ph.D. Jennifer Dees, M.Ed. Clare Roach, M.Ed. Itzxul Moreno, M.Ed. on Friday, 20 March 2020.

5 Ways to Ensure eLearning Doesn’t Leave English Learners Behind

Teachers and administrators are navigating unprecedented challenges as Catholic school communities across America respond to school closures. We’ve heard from many of you concerned that English learners (ELs) and their families are not left behind in the scramble to move to remote learning. In addition to our continued prayers and our profound gratitude for your efforts on behalf of your students and families, we’d like to offer you several ideas to help guide your work. 

#1: Close the Communication Gaps

Communicating with parents is not a new challenge for teachers of ELs. In addition to language barriers, teachers know that a significant subset of their EL parents and guardians do not use email as their primary means of communication. The day we closed the doors to our schools, the number of tried and true communication methods we depended on diminished. We can no longer rely on face-to-face messaging with our students like “Remind your parents that the meeting is at 7 p.m. tonight!” or putting a flyer in a student’s hand to bring home. 

Let’s consider the means of communication that will pull the parents of our ELs into the loop – text messaging. Texting our families does not mean we abandon email. It means we add text messages as an additional layer of communication in the hopes of connecting with 100 percent of our students.

There are lots of free, easy-to-use text messaging services that will hide a teacher’s personal phone number. Our favorite is Remind.com for several reasons:

    • You can use it to call or text parents and it hides your cell phone number
    • It’s simple and straightforward, and you can write messages using your laptop in addition to your cell phone
    • If your school uses Google Suite, you can sign up using your school email and it will link your school account
    • You can translate your messages into multiple languages instantaneously with the click of a button
    • You can put photos and voice messages in the texts with ease, or link to videos or webpages

Setting up your class on Remind.com or a similar text messaging service like WhatsApp or TalkingPoints (which translates messages to 100+ languages and is free for teachers), or posting on your school’s Facebook page with regularity, will greatly increase the odds that you will open lines of communication with ELs while school is closed.

Regardless of how “techy” you feel right now, you will need to communicate by text in addition to email. When inviting parents to join, leverage their networks. Ask your parents to reach out to fellow parents in the school or consider pairing families together to check-in.  Establish regular timeframes and timetables to communicate with families. It is easier for families when they can come to expect a short note from you at certain times or days.

Remember, if we don’t have an effective way to reach our EL families, eLearning efforts will not succeed. Our initial efforts must focus on establishing an effective means of communication.

#2 Assess Digital Access: Create a Triage List

Another essential step is assessing ELs’ access to the internet and digital devices. Inquiries have taken the form of online surveys (see a sample bilingual survey) or school-wide emails. In the case of EL families, we highly recommend that classroom teachers serve as the tip of the spear. Teachers can also get a sense for any material needs families might require.

First, teachers should use their intuition to determine who among their students is able to access devices connected to the internet. Make a triage list of those who likely have access, who might have limited access (perhaps a parent’s cell phone or an older sibling in high school with a school-issued computer), and who likely have no access to digital resources at all. Follow up with text message inquiries to get some additional clarity. We have some great recommendations for how to keep EL students learning via digital resources (read on), but students with the least amount of digital access are going to need our attention and creativity. We need to know who these students are and we must not leave them behind. Focus on getting the most unconnected families materials that will keep their children learning.

Here is a list of items to get to these families, if at all possible:

    • Textbooks, magazines, novels for upper grades
    • Bag of books for the younger students (look through closets for retired basal readers, old book sets, etc.)
    • Any and all magazines, printable books, etc. (these are often wonderfully rich in visual support!)
    • Consumable workbooks, packets, etc.
    • School supplies (lined paper, pencils, scissors, etc.). 

One of our local Catholic schools has opened the doors to their gym one day a week (the doors are kept open so no one has to touch a door handle) for vulnerable families to pick up school supplies, materials, and to-go lunches. Only one adult per family is allowed to enter the gym to keep social distancing.

#3 Plan for Digital and Non-digital Alike

ELs and their families are in the midst of tremendous uncertainty and adjustment (as are we all!). More than ever, assignments must be clear and rhythmic. Predictability in format enables students and parents to focus on content, not learning a new set of instructions each day. Maintain the format of an assignment for a week or more. Here are two examples:

    • Early elementary: Draw a picture about something you did today. Label three items in your picture. Write one sentence describing your picture. Remember to use capital letters and punctuation!
    • Upper grades: Read for 30 minutes. Write me a letter about what you read. Be sure your letter includes a date, begins with “Dear Mrs. Smith”, contains at least eight sentences, and concludes with “Sincerely, _your name_”.

Notice that students can complete the above assignments whether they have access to a device or not. We might encourage students to read on Epic.com (which has books in Spanish!) or Reading A-Z (which has books in multiple languages!). But, we can also encourage students to read from any basal, magazine, or even a catalogue they can find at home. All students can complete these assignments whether they have devices at home or not. 

Here are some wonderful real life examples of Catholic school teachers’ eLearning plans that account for the reality of the digital divide in their schools.

#4 Use Linguistically Supportive Digital Resources

Here are some examples of digital resources that are especially well suited for ELs. All of them are free.

Language Arts:

    • Epic: Access to thousands of high-quality online books and includes lots of titles in Spanish
    • Unite for Literacy: The site offers phonemic awareness lessons and has tons of books that can be read aloud in both English and Spanish
    • Learning A-Z: Access to lots of leveled reading material, most of which can be translated to multiple languages
    • Storyline Online: Famous actors and actresses read a variety of best-selling books out-loud to students. Great visual support
    • Scholastic Learn at Home: Tremendous visual support and an emphasis on vocabulary development
    • Newsela: The complexity of the language in each article can be altered by changing the Lexile level in the top right corner of each article. Look for the icon in the top right corner labeled MAX


    • Happy Numbers: Happy numbers is a highly visual and adaptive application (students take a quick placement test before they begin) that helps students build math intuition. Teachers can monitor progress
    • CK-12: A great source of math curricular materials, many of which are translated to Spanish 
    • XtraMath: Basic math fact practice

#5 Integrate Resources that are Already Translated and Ready to Go:

Everyone is navigating these unchartered waters with a tremendous sense of urgency. Below are links that give you quick access to some resources that are already translated and ready to go.

As you navigate these upcoming days and weeks, we invite you to get creative in the ways in which you involve families, as they are the first educators of children, and regardless of language, parents have capacity to help with schoolwork and learning. Also, remember that reading and learning in any language – English or a home language – is all good for the brain! Please encourage your families to read, play, and speak richly in whatever language is strongest for them.

May God bless you as you work to keep your English learners challenged, supported, and growing over these next weeks and months. Thank you.


The ENL Team
Katy, Jenny, Clare, and Itzxul

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