Distance Learning for ELLs: Planning Instruction

Sisters looking at laptop

This article starts with a needs assessment to help prioritize planning, as well as tips and strategies for developing online lesson plans for ELLs. The article also includes activities that support students' language development.

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.

Teaching online is like traveling to a new country.  You're not really sure where anything is, you are afraid to try new things because you might be embarrassed, and you miss the ease of your old daily life and the ability to connect seamlessly with others. 

On the other hand, it can be very exciting to see student learning in new and different ways, you can take pride in the growth you experience while learning new instructional strategies, and you will make connections that sometimes can be even more meaningful because you have the opportunity for one-on-one interactions.

This article will give you some ideas on how to navigate this journey as you plan instruction for your English language learners (ELLs) through distance learning.


Needs Assessment

It’s important to start your planning by looking more closely at the factors that will impact the success of your students' experiences with distance learning. You can use this downloadable needs assessment for planning ELLs' distance learning, which includes considerations for both offline and online learning.

The tools covers multiple topics; you may wish to read through them all to see which are most relevant to your work or complete the tool as part of a team. The questions can be used by individuals or teams. I also recommend ELL teachers work with grade level and/or content area teams to review these questions so all educators are on the same page when considering how to deliver instruction and what supports should be in place for students and families.

Once the team has reviewed tool, they can determine their priorities and where to put their energy for planning instruction.

District planning examples

Here are some ELL district planning documents that we have used in Roseville, MN:

Distance Learning Strategies

Survey: Distance Learning & ELLs

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

Note: This section refers to some specific platforms by name, although your district may use other approved platforms. It's critical to understand online security risks for children and take measures to protect students' privacy as part of your planning.

1. Get to know your tools.

Take a look at our needs assessment and the section on tools for instruction. Depending on what Learning Management System (LMS) your district uses, there may be tutorials to help you learn how to use these instructional tools.

Keep in mind that:

  • the focus should be on how the tools can best support teaching and learning goals rather than on the tools themselves
  • it's best not to introduce too many new tools — otherwise students will spend their time learning the tools rather than learning the content
  • your district may have a list of approved and vetted platforms for distance learning.

See more in 4 Buckets Manage ALL Our Virtual School Tech by Tan Huynh.

2.  Establish a structured learning environment. 

This is a lot like arranging your classroom at the beginning of the year — without the inspiring posters! Decide what tools you want students to use regularly (only pick a few) and set up the dashboard or learning activity page.  For example, you may want to have a calendar with assignments, announcements, discussion board, and a chat room.  Students will know what to do every week because the lesson structure repeats with different content.

For example:

  • open with a video greeting that you have recorded
  • do two readings
  • comment on the discussion board
  • connect with a partner
  • write or record (audio or video) a short discussion of your take-aways from the learning, etc.

See more ideas in Five Structures for Virtual School from Tan Huynh's Empowering ELLs blog.

3. Emphasize language production. 

Remember to keep the focus on academic learning and to avoid providing only skills-based activities, even if your primary activity is content review. If students are isolated in their homes, they are not likely to have much English language exposure. While this is a valuable time for students to deepen their native language skills with family members, it is critical that teachers build in activities that require students to share their thinking in English. 

Look for ways to build interaction, even if you aren't using video. For example, students can post messages via writing, audio, and video and respond to each other.  Recordings should be short - three to five minutes in general.  If you want to try out sharing your own tips on distance learning for ELs, post to this Flipgrid!

Another strategy is to create videos that students can watch at their convenience and review multiple times for practice. (Some teachers have noted that their ELLs are struggling to keep up with "live" instruction and would benefit from videos they can review multiple times.) You may wish to share greetings, lessons, and important information this way.

See additional ideas in these posts:


4. Scaffold supports. 

Differentiate instruction and activities to accommodate different English language proficiency levels.  This may mean that you have different sections and tasks for identified students.  If you have mainstream students performing closer to grade level, they may interact with the content tasks with minimal support.

For beginning level English learners, however, you will need to analyze the instruction, readings, and activities to provide accommodations such as:

  • native language or simple English explanations through video
  • more visuals
  • native language or leveled English text
  • an activity completed in a small group rather than independently. 

Pairs and groups can be assigned in online learning platforms and it can be helpful for students to collaborate on learning just like in the classroom.  Online learning doesn’t mean everything has to be done in isolation - many young people are used to connecting with each other through electronic platforms and this is no different.

5. Get those creative juices flowing. (We all have them!)

Many teachers are not going to love online teaching and may grieve the lack of daily interaction with students.  It is important to keep a sense of fun and personalization in the online environment.  This is an opportunity to reconnect with the creative juices that might be dormant!

Students like it when teachers share little personal stories or pictures.  They will also enjoy doing more creative projects and sharing them online.  This could be a VoiceThread or Adobe Spark presentation, which allows students to create a slideshow and explain each slide verbally.  Their classmates can respond on each slide with a text or verbal response.  It’s also a good opportunity for a project presentation video or graphic design/artwork assignment. 

Give students choices of how to demonstrate their learning — they may surprise you with the creative work they share.  My son had a talent for creating music playlists and he created a themed playlist for an assignment explaining how each song related to his insights in a novel. He also dressed up as Arthur Dent for a creative book review and I could not figure out for four months where my ratty green bathrobe had gone…until we cleaned his locker at the end of the year!

6. Look for ways to support social-emotional learning.

Many teachers have shared that their ELLs are valuing the chance to connect with them and their peers as well as continue their education through distance learning. Look for ways to help provide positive encouragement, continue building relationships, and offer support during a time of anxiety and stress. This is especially important for students who may have experienced trauma and a lot of upheaval, like refugees or students with interrupted education — particularly given the abrupt nature of many of the national school shutdowns.

For some great ideas, take a look at:

You can also look for ways to connect content to students' experiences and cultures through culturally relevant instruction.


Online Activities for ELLs

Here are some examples of activities for ELLs, with a focus on oral language development and content development.

1. Students can upload videos of themselves reading their favorite books.

2. Students can write and draw responses to a prompt (for example, "What is one way you can be helpful to your family at home?") and then students can leave questions or comments for each other.

3. Students can film themselves solving a math problem or record themselves explaining how they solved the problem, and the teacher can provide feedback.

4. Students can interview someone in their family that is important to them and create a presentation to share.  They can present in both English and native language and include photos or short videos with quotes from their important person.  Other students can leave written or verbal comments on slides in English or the students native language.

5. Teacher can create a presentation with slides and voice narration on a platform like VoiceThread.  Students can respond orally or in writing to questions posed in the VoiceThread.

6. Teacher can provide a slideshow with visuals on a content topic and resource links for students to learn about the topic.  Different students are assigned a few slides to narrate for their classmates to learn about the topic.  A variation of this is for students to each get a different topic related to the unit (after learning about it from the teacher) and have them create a group presentation on that topic to share with the class.

Activity: Pass the Paper

Post a short text or image as a prompt to start the discussion.

  • Round 1: Everyone posts a word, phrase, or short comment about the prompt (depending on age/proficiency levels) via written response, audio, or video.
  • Round 2: Everyone adds a question related to a classmate's round 1 post.
  • Round 3: Everyone adds an answer to a classmate's question from round 2.
  • Round 4: Students review all questions and answers on the grid and use the information to help them write (or record) a reflection that they send to the teacher.

Planning Instruction

Once you have a sense of your goals and what tools you will use for distance learning, you can focus on developing a unit of lessons.  A weekly plan as part of a learning unit can help you maintain the same structure and learning activities each week.  If students get used to the structure of the online learning course or the materials they receive weekly, they can use their mental energy on language and content learning.

An example of a weekly online instructional schedule might look like this for secondary English learners:


Lesson Launch:

Introduce topic w/ video and essential question

Students interact on a discussion board and share one take-away and one question regarding each reading.Assign group project to students related to the learning objective. (Students work in Google docs or Padlet) to create a visual to upload and share with the class.1/2 page written reflection is submitted.Written reflections are evaluated and feedback comments are shared in writing.
Assign two readings.Assign 1/2 page written reflection on the essential question using evidence from text to support claims. Due Thursday.Teacher shares link to recorded video mini-lecture on the topic.Teacher meets with the students to have a class / small group discussion on the essential question. Teacher can share sentence stems.Teacher shares snippets of quality written responses to the essential question through messages or class discussions and discusses what makes the response a quality example.

An example online instruction schedule might look like this for elementary English learners:


Lesson Launch:

Introduce topic w/ video and essential question

Students read aloud from books that have been sent home or available online via Epic (free to school closure) or RAZ Kids (fee based).Assign two independent student learning activities related to the learning objective.1/2 page written reflection is submitted by returning a packet or taking a photo of response and submitting it.Written reflections are evaluated and feedback comments are shared in writing.
Assign two student learning activities such as a game or learning app.Teacher introduces by video the academic language structures needed to share their thinking about essential video.Students write 1/2 page response to the essential question using sentence frames. For beginning ELs, provide scaffolded support such as a graphic organizer with pictures and key vocabulary.Teacher meets with the students to have a class / small group discussion on the essential question. Teacher can share sentence stems.Teacher shares snippets of quality written responses to the essential question through messages or class discussions and discusses what makes the response a quality example.

Sample lesson: An online lesson for ELLs

An online lesson plan takes into account the asynchronous (not in real time) learning environment and need for active learning in different ways.  It is unlikely that a teacher and students will be able to meet live every day at the same time, so the lesson will be prepared and shared online for students and families to work with according to their own schedule and access to a device or Wi-Fi.  The lesson, which is part of a larger unit, will include certain elements such as student engagement, language production, demonstrating content learning, critical thinking tasks, scaffolded supports and an assessment.

Here is a sample lesson plan for a 3rd grade EL level 2 student group.  The lesson will be delivered with SeeSaw. Here is the EL Distance Learning Lesson Plan fillable template.

Topic: Erosion

Standard: 4-ESS2-1

Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation. 

Content Objective:

  • I can observe the impact of erosion.
  • I can give evidence to support my explanation of my observation.


  • Watering can or large pop bottle
  • Soil or dirt
  • A tub or pot

Language Objective:

I can explain the impact of erosion using observation evidence in a sentence frame, “I observed that when ________ then ___________.”


Make your own Erosion (video 3:50  min)


"Today we will learn about erosion.  Erosion is when earth or rocks are worn away by water or wind.  You will do a home experiment to learn about erosion and explain your observation on SeeSaw." 


Show students how to set up the experiment using the materials listed in the lesson.  Introduce the sentence frame and any key vocabulary by stating an example sentence for the students. “I observed that erosion happened when I poured a lot of water on the dirt.”  


For your experiment you will put dirt in a small tub and put the tub at an angle or slope.  Make some holes in an empty pop bottle then fill it with water and hold it over the dirt.  What happens if you try different things?
1. If the dirt tub is at a higher slope?
2. If the dirt tub is flat?
3. If you have a little water come out?
4. If you have a lot of water come out?

Reflection:  After students have seen each other’s video explanations of the experiment, they will write an exit ticket on Padlet to state one thing they know about erosion and one thing they liked from the activity.  

Teacher reflection:  From the exit tickets, I can see that the students understand that more erosion happens when the slope is higher and there is more water.  Next time I will think of alternatives to certain materials since not all students had dirt for the experiment. 

Scaffolded support for different language proficiencies: (click all that apply in the lesson)

Adapted from Generation Genius: Weathering and Erosion - grades 3 - 5 lesson plan

Online learning tools

Here are three platforms that your district may be using. This is not an endorsement of any one product, but rather a quick guide to some resources teachers have used successfully with ELLs. 

You can learn more about the privacy ratings of these and other platforms from the Common Sense Privacy Evaluation program. Please ask for guidance on the most secure ways to use any platform, including those listed below, with a particular eye on protecting personally identifiable information (PII) for ELLs and immigrant students.

Note: Some districts do not permit the use of video or images of students for security reasons. To learn more about protecting student privacy for ELLs and immigrant students, see our related resource section. Keep in mind that some free platforms may sell data to third-party vendors. In addition, Zoom is facing increased scrutiny for security problems.

Tool: SeeSaw

Seesaw article: Remote Learning for Teachers

Privacy evaluation: Seesaw (Common Sense Media)


1. Focus on oral language production
2. Family connection
3. Ease of use
4. Visual platform
5. Free

Tool: Flipgrid

Flipgrid article: Remote Learning with Flipgrid

Privacy evaluation: Flipgrid (Common Sense Media)

1. Focus on oral language production
2. Student-to-Student connection
3. Ease of use - multiple classes
4. Visual platform
5. Free

Tool: VoiceThread

Website resources: Digital Database of Successful VoiceThread Projects

Privacy evaluation: VoiceThread (Common Sense Media)

1. Content presentation with oral and written language production
2. Student-to-Student connection
3. Ease of use - project based and collaborative
4. Visual platform
5. Free

Assessment and Feedback

Using rubrics

Students need feedback in order to learn.  Whatever platform you use, you will need to determine how you will give feedback on their learning.  If it is online, students can use rubrics for assignments and receive comments verbally or in writing. Comments can be encouraging and individualized to help them learn how to apply the feedback.  In a non-digital system, teachers will need to try other approaches, such as phone calls, to students to review their work and questions. 

A clear rubric for content and language production is helpful to guide the students’ work.  Allow students to revise work because it is about learning, not perfection.  It’s also highly likely that students will not fully understand what is expected in a task due to the new learning format.  Use “second attempts” as an opportunity for them to apply your feedback and demonstrate learning. 

The importance of regular feedback

The best feedback will happen frequently in multiple areas of the digital space.  It could be on the discussion board, individual assignments or larger projects.  Since students can't see you, they need to know you are there through your interaction and encouraging feedback.  You may be nervous in this new platform and they are equally (if not more) nervous because they want to do well and they need to hear from you daily so they know they are on the right track. 

Remember they do not have the advantage of asking questions in a classroom and getting your feedback as they work, so give them additional opportunities in the digital platform.  We are asking learners who rely on a lot of classroom scaffolded supports to be successful to become independent learners overnight.  The chart below shows the intersection between language skills and learning — how a student’s language abilities impact their independent learning level.


Continuum of Language and Learning













Keep a grade book online so students know what is due, what grades they received (if grades are being used) and the feedback for assignments.  If beginning-level students are attempting assignments in an online platform, teachers may want to advocate for a Pass/No Pass grading system because they will be working very hard in a language they don’t fully understand to demonstrate their learning. (Some districts are using Pass/No Pass more broadly.)

Tips for Collaboration

Just as planning instruction for distance learning will take intentional thought and planning, so will collaboration. The good news is that there may be new kinds of opportunities for collaborating as it becomes an even more critical piece of the puzzle during this time of school closures, especially for ELLs. There also may be new kinds of instruction happening, such as project-based learning or more content-specific lessons, that will lend themselves well to collaboration among content-area teachers and EL educators.

Other teachers are also great resources for instructional problem-solving; collaboration between general education and ELL teachers will make lessons engaging and accessible for ELLs. 

Here are some ideas on how to collaborate on behalf of ELs at a distance, which can be used among individuals or larger groups. These strategies can also be used for colleagues who have an established partnership, as well as those who are new to collaborating. And remember that it may be much easier to start small — choose just one strategy that fits your schedule and workload, and think about how to use it strategically!

  • Check in with a colleague to see whether they are in touch with ELLs and their families and if they need suggestions on how to make contact.
  • Check in with a colleague on whether they need some ideas on how to support EL instruction.
  • Invite a colleague to co-plan and/or co-teach a lesson.
  • Ask a colleague to share a question or challenge they would like to address.
  • Share examples of how you are collaborating more broadly with colleagues (and ask the people who are already partnering with you to do the same).
  • Send a note to colleagues whom you haven't worked with before introducing yourself, briefly explaining your role, and sharing ideas on how you might work together.
  • Share examples of student work, successful student activities, or strategies for distance learning/family engagement that seem to working well for ELs in your school or district.
  • Partner with a team on behalf of a specific student, group of students, or family.
  • Consider sending out a strategy or resource idea on a regular basis to colleagues.

Final Thoughts

It’s okay to feel a range of emotions as you begin this new distance learning adventure.  Remember you are making history!  Also remember that you are not alone and it’s important to develop your own professional learning community around this work. Since the whole world is going through an online teaching revolution due to school closings, there are a myriad (almost too many) of resources available to help with online learning.

To keep from being overwhelmed:

  • Don’t get lost in the weeds of all the choices. 
  • Keep your focus clearly on what you want students to learn.
  • Think of a creative project.
  • Use one or two “go to” apps that work for you and your students to adjust to this new learning environment. 
  • Think of e-learning as Emergency Learning — and you are a learner. 
  • Don't forget to take care of yourself.

When the Apollo 13 crew was in danger, great minds got together and solved the seemingly impossible problem of placing a square vent in a round hole.  This is our opportunity to bring our great minds together and do what seems impossible - teach all students through distance learning.  With creativity, a good team and some extra pots of coffee, you will succeed!

For additional resources, see:




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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My students need sentence starters and many visuals. When working with vocabulary we try to tie it to a word in their native language that they might understand more. This tends to help them understand more about the story. We are currently using screencastify and seesaw and giving lots of feedback so they can be successful. We also are available anytime that the parents have questions.

This was SO helpful! I have not found an article this thorough and well-written concerning ELs and distance learning until now. I feel way more at ease about creating successful virtual lessons for my ELs. Thank you!

This was so well written and inspired.thank you.

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