Distance Learning for ELLs: Challenges and Opportunities

Learn more about the kinds of challenges and opportunities distance learning and school closures present to ELLs, their families, and their educators.

Note: This article is part of our guide on distance learning for ELLs, which includes information about planning instruction, offline learning, privacy considerations, family partnerships, and more.

As teachers, students, and families adjust to our "new reality," the changes can be overwhelming. It can be helpful to think a little bit not only about the challenges this situation presents but the opportunities it presents, as well as the strengths that educators bring to this moment.

For additional reflection questions, see the first part of our needs assessment for distance learning.


Survey: Distance Learning & ELLs

What does distance learning look like for ELLs in your district? Tell us in this brief survey.

What are some concerns regarding distance learning for ELLs (in addition to the heavy workload of figuring this all out)?

The solutions that are developed may be inequitable for multilingual students and families without devices or Wi-Fi. The reality is that without easy access and an understanding of distance learning, multilingual families will be at a disadvantage. The equity gap is likely to widen as digitally-connected and tech-savvy students move forward with learning, which is compounded by the many other ways school closures are impacting more vulnerable students. In addition, some students may have very limited experience with technology and may not be prepared to learn independently via online systems. Of course, multilingual families want learning activities for their children, too, and they will do their best to ensure home learning. However, without the proper access and tech tools, many will be relegated to materials that are difficult to navigate even if they are in a native language.

(There may be ways for educators to assist families in expanding their online access. Please see this resource section for more information.)

Immigrant families may have privacy concerns about online learning. It is critical for school districts to establish strong security policies that protect all students' privacy, while keeping in mind that immigrant families may have particular concerns about their online privacy and may also request alternate methods of instruction.  The better informed that districts are about these concerns, the better they will be able to create strong privacy policies in collaboration with IT and legal departments.

The strains and pressures this national crisis is putting on families are devastating. Families are strong and will provide loving support for their children, but they may also feel scared and overwhelmed and suffer serious financial setbacks, not to mention illness and loss within their families. Perhaps jumping right into distance learning is not the most important thing educators can offer at this time.

Think about how you can provide positive support to children and families by reaching out through inspirational YouTube videos from staff and personal phone calls and by connecting families with resources in the community for food, assistance programs and information in their native language.

The stresses on educators are complex and will continue to evolved. No one is untouched by this crisis, whether they have been touched by illness, loss, financial insecurity, big changes to the routine, or new ways of working. So much is being asked of educators and school workers currently, many of whom are caring for and educating their own children and family members at home. At the same time, due to the sudden nature of this shift, some educators have described the stress of being asked to change course just as they are starting to figure things out or being asked to implement schedules and academic plans that are unsustainable for them and their students. 


In spite of those challenges, there are some opportunities that this situation presents.

This as an opportunity for students to spend valuable time with their families. Students may have a chance to strengthen their bonds with multigenerational family members and further develop their native language skills, which tend to atrophy the longer they are in an English-speaking environment. Teachers can create interactive activities that require meaningful connection with members of the family, or ask students to learn new things about family members through interviews or family stories. See this Story Corps DIY site for some ideas about how to set up an interview project.

We may see greater collaboration between ELL/bilingual teachers and general education/content teams. This is a very rare time for all teachers to come together to plan and discuss best practices to meet the needs of all students. For general education teachers, they may have extra opportunities to engage in job-embedded professional learning with ELL and bilingual teachers in order to better serve their multilingual students. Without the students present and a tight schedule of everything that must be done in a day, it may be possible for the conversations and learning to be deeper and long-lasting.

There may be great learning opportunities in this situation for both educators and students. If nothing else, this situation allows educators to demonstrate their own growth mindset for students while learning new instructional skills. You have been placed squarely in stage-one learner mode and you will be modeling for your students that you can be a learner too and that you will keep going even when things get difficult. This will be a tremendous teachable moment for all of you.

In addition, while there are tremendous hurdles to overcome and the impacts of school closures will be complex, there can be many positive learning experiences that come out of this for students. We are already hearing examples from ELL educators about students' enthusiasm and dedication to their classes from home, as well as their appreciation for a chance to continue to their learning. Many students and educators alike will come out of this experience with new ideas and interests that will enrich future learning.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

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