Offline Learning at Home: Ideas for English Language Learners

Boy doing homework at home

Discover ideas to support learning at home for ELLs without access to devices or internet. These recommendations build upon families' cultures, languages, and strengths.

This article is featured in an episode from Tan Huynh's Empowering ELLs podcast and is part of our guide on distance learning for ELLs.

Amidst the current COVID-19 crisis, many schools are reaching their learning community through remote, online, or hybrid options. This shift to remote learning can be especially daunting for educators as we continue to scramble to best serve students and families.

Yet equitable access to the resources and infrastructure needed to support families is not always available, despite the progress that has been made in many places. Many of the multilingual families in the U.S. schools we work with have limited access to a device, stable internet service, and even in extreme cases, stable electricity.  Online learning is therefore not a viable option.

Reaching Students Offline

Districts have worked hard to overcome many of these obstacles, by providing individual devices to students and partnering with service providers that offer free Internet, accessible community hot-spots, and free data for families, but many students, especially our multilingual learners in rural areas, remain disconnected. In some areas of our region, high speed, broadband internet is not yet available and cell service does not reach rural homes.

This article addresses some creative best practices for reaching students, especially our multilingual learners, who can not equitably access online learning opportunities, as well as ideas for building upon families’ cultures, languages, and strengths in distance learning.

Graphic of two adults and a child.  Partnering with Families

Partnering with students’ families has never been more important than during this time, when face-to-face interaction with our students is limited. As Laura Gardner reminds us, “Parents have the capacity to help their children regardless of their background.”

To foster connectedness with students, families and their community, it is essential that we focus communication on personal check-ins. These check-ins are a means of informing families of services such as school lunches and other resources, and provide a compassionate listening ear. To get started:

→ Consider the questions on the needs assessment for distance learning and then reach out to parents and guardians using their preferred method of communication.

→ Find out what translation resources, including interpreters and hotlines, are available. If that’s not an option, use a translation app like TalkingPoints, if necessary. (Parents receive translated text messages in their language but don’t have to download the app.)

→ If you can’t get through to your students or families via text, phone, or other regular contact channels, have a back up plan.

→ Try to reach students via postcards; send a letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope; or ask a friend to contact them for you. Be sure to tell a school administrator if you have not yet been able to contact students. If your school has a resource officer, they may be able to make a home wellness check.

Resources: For more ideas on connecting with your students during school closures, read Making the Connection: Communicating with ELLs and Their Families During School Closures.

Offline Learning Opportunities

Once you have connected with students and their families who do not have access to online learning opportunities, consider which of the following offline learning options would work best for this student.

Oral and Aural Language Development

If families are in a position to support their child’s offline learning, you can offer them some of these suggestions for supporting their multilingual learners oral language development through daily activities in the home. Many multilingual families already have a strong oral language tradition that is perfect for developing oral and aural language in their home language. The additional time at home together could actually provide a benefit for home language development and cultural awareness. Students may even develop a stronger sense of their identity through extended interactions with parents, guardians, and family members during this time of sheltering in place. As Fred Genesee reminds us in this article, “There is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELLs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success.”


Encourage parents, older siblings, and guardians to:

→ Tell family stories in the home language.

→ Include the child in household chores like cooking and cleaning.

→ Ask the child to tell a story or recount an event using all of their languages.

→ Sing songs from the home culture and share cultural traditions.

→ Ask the child what they are interested in or what they are curious about; discuss these topics.

→ Sort clothing for the laundry by type of clothing, color, or the family member who wears it.

→ Notice and name changes in the natural world as seasons and times of day change.

Resource: For more information and ideas on learning at home, read Empowering ELL Parents and Families at Home.

Distance Learning at Home: Ideas in the Kitchen

Graphic of books standing up with spines facing out.  Reading

Distributing copies of books from the school or classroom library is one way to support at home, offline learning. These books can be distributed with school lunches, if your school is offering that service. Picture books, wordless books, and books in the students’ home languages are especially valuable. Even if children are not yet independent readers, they can use the books to develop curiosity and early literacy skills. Share some simple strategies with parents or guardians, who may not have the time or ability to sit down and read a book aloud with their child.


Encourage parents to:

→ Ask questions about the pictures in the book.

→ Have the child find words they recognize or the letters in their name in the text.

→ Ask the child to retell the story based on the pictures in the book.

→ Compare the activities and characters shown in the pictures to those in the family.

→ Create a new ending to the story together.

→ Draw a new story for the same characters in the book.

→ Ask another family member to read aloud to younger children or create a story for them to read.

→ Use household items like cereal boxes, soup cans, and labels to build print awareness.

Resources: If your school does not lend books at this time, you can print readers from sources like Reading A to Z or Waterford Early Learning Boosts  For younger learners, you can print coloring books like these from museums and have students use the pictures to tell stories. For older students, NewsELA offers a variety of printable articles that can be differentiated per reading level to best support your multilingual learners.

Graphic of open book and pencil.  Writing

Writing can be especially challenging for multilingual learners. Our students often think they are not good at writing unless it is perfect and they may not have the language skills necessary to edit and revise their own work yet. In this time away from a traditional learning setting, the focus of writing can take on a variety of forms, genres, voices and languages.

For example, you can learn more about multisensory techniques for teaching handwriting, originally published by Understood. The tips are also available in Spanish.


→ Students can create their own guiding message for the day. Many students have taken to creating positive messages through sidewalk chalk art.

→ Have students create a photo journal with a compelling image they see in their homes, in their community or in a story.

→ Have students create notes to family or community members that they are not currently seeing during this quarantined time.

Resources: Peter Cameron, educator and professional development provider from Canada, has created a shareable at-home writing journal, as well as a math journal and book report template. You can adapt this journal to any grade level and make paper copies for students without internet access. Additionally, one of our favorite writing support resources is the lighthouse writers workshop. The site offers great ideas to support writing beyond the classroom including writing prompts for the whole family. You can send students a writing prompt or idea from this website in English or their home language via snail mail, deliver a writing prompt with their daily food pick up, or call them with one of the writing ideas from this site.

  Language Integrated At Home Learning Opportunities

This unprecedented time of world-wide school closures, canceled state achievement tests, and relaxed classroom based assessments may be the perfect time for teachers to provide students with a choice of project-based or game-based learning activities. During the regular school year, these types of activities are often cut out of the school day.

For example, a team of creative ESL teachers from around the US, led by Maria Montroni-Currais, collaborated to create 8 Weeks of ESL At Home Activities which have now been translated into 27 languages with more translations on the way. You can hear more about this project in Maria's podcast with Tan Huynh on his Empowering ELLs blog.

Here are some additional resources:

  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network also created a list of offline Simple Activities for Children and Adolescents for physical, social, and emotional well-being.
  • We also developed this set of offline At Home Learning Bingo Board Activities that encourage students to choose an activity in reading, writing, discussing, creating, and helping every day. We provide activities appropriate for students in different grade levels that can be completed mostly independently. 
  • Bilingual preschool expert Dr. Rebecca Palacios has developed a list of home-based activities in her Reading Rockets article, Your Home as a Learning Experience, along with a sample daily schedule for young children. You can also see Dr. Palacios' ideas for water play in this Age of Learning blog.

The power in these types of activities is they help build autonomy and ownership in a student’s day, especially when there is so much uncertainty in their lives.

Distance Learning at Home: Ideas with TV

Creating Accessible Packets

While publishing companies and other websites may offer prepared learning packets for each subject area, these materials may not be accessible to multilingual learners and their families, especially to learners that are dually identified. Teachers should revise pre-made packets or design their own to ensure that multilingual learners are able to learn from packets, regardless of their language acquisition level or background knowledge.


Try some of these strategies to make your packets more accessible to multilingual learners and dually identified students:

→ Rewrite directions to make them direct, step-by-step, and brief.

→ Translate directions into students' home language to provide more opportunity for family support.

→ Provide a clear model of how to complete each activity or problem.

→ Organize packets with practice problems or questions immediately following a model.

→ Break up text and activities into small, manageable chunks.

→ Add a visual such as an image, a graph, or a chart to support the content of the text in each small chunk.

→ Reword or reduce the amount of text on each page. Use as a starting point.

→ Provide visual word banks, sentence frames, and framed paragraphs for written responses.

→ Offer choices in how students complete the packet, rather than requiring students to work through the packet from start to finish.

→ Offer choices for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

→ Encourage students or parents to choose a different text or problem to better match their interests, culture, language, or background.

→ Provide support and feedback on the work in the students’ home language via phone when possible.

→ Determine if there are any manipulatives or materials you can send home with packets, such as straws cut into short pieces for math/counting practice.

Infographic: Making packets accessible

Special thanks to Claribel González for creating this infographic and sharing it with us!


Final Thoughts

The challenges of this moment are significant; yet, as you can see from these examples, educators and families all over the country are tackling those challenges with creativity, ingenuity, and above all, a tremendous dedication to their students and children. It is our hope that by sharing their examples we can give our schools and communities some tools that will help them succeed in this endeavor -- and that will spark students’ excitement for learning, even from afar.


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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