Distance Learning Strategies for ELLs: What You Need to Know

Woman working on laptop at home

This overview offers some important considerations related to distance learning for ELLs, as well as links to recommended resources and early lessons learned.

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.

I often tell educators of English language learners (ELLs) that they are doing something that has never been done in the history of our nation's educational system: they are teaching first-generation immigrants for career- and college-readiness.

Now we can add that educators across the nation are required to develop and deliver distance learning in response to school closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only that, it must be accessible to ALL learners including ELLs and students identified as needing special education services. This is a truly historic moment, and as I prepare for this in my own district, I am reminded of the famous scene in Apollo 13 in which the NASA team supporting the flight mission must figure out how to put a square peg in a round hole. It's an impossible task, yet somehow they do it.

Distance learning (or electronic learning/e-Learning) requires a different skill set than our in-person classroom instruction skill set. While rapid school closing is not the way teachers would choose to learn the pedagogy of distance instruction, there is something to be said for the adage, "Necessity is the mother of invention." (Learn more about some of the opportunities and challenges this situation presents to educators of ELLs in this section of our guide.)

This guide will share ideas on how to get started quickly with distance learning for ELLs, highlight some tools for increased language production, and share lessons learned so far about communicating with multilingual families during school closures. The guide will focus on online learning practices, although the sections have components that are relevant to all distance learning practices and will provide important guidance as you reflect on what’s working and what is still needed to improve instruction no matter the format.

For ideas about offline learning for students without access to technology, see Offline Learning at Home: Ideas for ELLs.

Practicing Self-Care

My number one piece of advice as you embark on this journey is to give yourself some grace. You are trying to change instructional practices in a system that has not changed significantly in 150 years. Most educators have received minimal instructional technology training and the reason they went into teaching is that they love working with kids — in person.

You are also grieving. The school year has come to an abrupt halt. There are so many unknowns, and you are missing fun projects and traditional spring activities with your students. You will worry about them because you know the struggles they face. All of this takes a tremendous toll on your own psyche, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and to not provide the quality of instruction you are used to. We will all grow together.

As impossible as it seems, it is even more important to take care of yourself during this period, physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. You are important, and your work is highly valuable.  Your students need you to take care of yourself and they will benefit from some mindfulness activities in their distance learning as well. Remember that all of this online interaction and work is also taxing, on top of the other stresses we are facing.

If you are looking for ideas on how to do so, take a look at the following:

What You Need to Know

The more familiar you are with your ELLs' unique situations, strengths, and needs, the better you will be able to tailor instruction that will allow them to succeed. This needs assessment might help you identify some key questions to ask students and families.

Students' situations at home

It's important to know what your students will be able to do at home so you can plan accordingly. For example:

  • students' access to devices at home and Internet connections will vary widely, as will their schedules. Some families may have neither Internet nor a device. Others may have a single device that multiple siblings need to share, or they may have a cell phone but no computer or tablet. Others may not have any experience using computers or other devices and may struggle to manage learning independently.
  • many students will be responsible for taking care of younger siblings or relatives at different points during the day and may not be able to follow a strict schedule during daytime hours. Teachers are finding, however, that students are completing work in the evenings and submitting by the next morning even if they are not always online during the day.

Helping students make the transition

Keep in mind that:

  • students may need time to share their experiences and emotions about this huge change, as well as to adjust to their new learning platforms and routines. Just as you offer time to settle in at the beginning of the school year, offer some ways to let students ease into their online learning experience. Look for ways to embed social-emotional learning throughout your instruction.
  • this abrupt transition may have been particularly difficult for students who have experienced trauma or instability.
  • having access to the technology may not mean that students are ready to jump into a heavy workload. Students may need extra time to familiarize themselves with the platforms and how to interact with teachers and peers.
  • ELLs may experience extreme stress if they are asked to complete an unrealistic amount of work by teachers who are relying extensively on technology for support. Thoughtful pre-planning can help create a situation students will be more likely to manage.
  • becoming more familiar with students' interests and talents might provide an opportunity to create some extra student engagement.

ELL/bilingual educator expertise

Whether you are a veteran ELL educator, someone who is new to working with ELLs, or an administrator, it is helpful to know what ELL specialists have to offer in terms of instruction and collaboration. Here are a few highlights:

  • Educators in the ELL profession often have to be resourceful and creative in supporting students, collaborating, and designing their lessons and materials.
  • They know their students and families well — sometimes better than anyone else in the school community.
  • They know how to differentiate learning.
  • They know what their students can do and what their students' strengths are.
  • They are terrific, dedicated advocates who persist in overcoming many different kinds of challenges that may arise. This has never been more true than right now!

With time, ELL and bilingual educators will be able to problem solve their way through many of the challenges that arise and develop creative solutions because that's what we do every day. Already the ELL field is networking and sharing resources through social media, blogs, webinars, and more. (See a list of distance learning resources from Colorín Colorado.)

For Educators New to Working with ELLs

If you are just starting to work with ELLs during school closures, there are some helpful resources that can help prepare you to get started.  Even though these resources focus on more typical classroom interactions and instruction, they can still provide some guidance.


I'd like to thank the contributors to this guide: Nicole May, Ingrid Corpuz, Angela Froemming, and LeighAnn Matthews. Beth Skelton and Mia Ariela Allen, authors of the article about offline learning, also contributed to the needs assessment tool. Finally, a special thanks to the wonderful Twitter community that responded to my request for online tools and strategies for ELLs, some of which I’ll share here.


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